Testimony on Diversity in Public Schools, NYC Council Education Committee

Lazar Treschan

Director of Youth Policy
Community Service Society of New York

Testimony to the Committee on Education
of the Council of the City of New York
December 11, 2014

Issue:  Proposed Int. No. 511-A - In relation to requiring the department of education report annually on progress and efforts toward increasing diversity within schools, including but not limited to, data within charter schools and special programs.

Res. No. 442 - Resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign S.7738/ A.9979, to change the admissions criteria for New York City's Specialized High Schools.

Res. No. 453 - Resolution calling upon the New York City Department of Education to officially recognize the importance and benefits of school diversity and to set it as a priority when making decisions regarding admissions policies and practices, creation of new schools, school rezoning and other pertinent decisions and commit to having a strategy in each district for overcoming impediments to school diversity.
Oversight: Diversity in New York City Schools

Recommendation:  Use data and research to revise Specialized High School admissions procedures

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about diversity in New York City schools. My name is Lazar Treschan and I am the Director of Youth Policy for the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), an organization that conducts research and advocacy to advance public policy for low-income New Yorkers. We are strongly supportive of all the Council actions being put forth today. I will start by framing my comments with research on school segregation, then turn to the issue that CSS has been working on: how to make the admissions process at specialized high schools fairer, and a better refection of merit and achievement.

We are glad to see the Council considering issues of diversity in our schools.  In a major study released earlier this fall, UCLA Professor and leading civil rights educator Gary Orfield documents the obscene levels of segregation in our schools.  Orfield calls New York City the “epicenter of educational segregation for the nation” and notes that recent reforms focusing on school choice and charter schools have only replicated and even intensified neighborhood segregation, stratifying students by race and class. This is true despite the clearly documented benefits of diverse school environments, which include higher academic achievement, future earnings, and even health outcomes, not to mention the social gains from exposure to learning and working alongside different groups.

My testimony today will focus on the lack of fairness (and resulting lack of diversity—not the other way around) at those public institutions which have the potential to serve as the greatest equalizers within our K-12 system, the Specialized High Schools. Each year nearly 30,000 thousand eight graders spend two and a half hours on a multiple choice exam known as the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT); their scores will be the sole determinant of admission to the eight of the best public high schools in New York City. The use of a single, unvalidated test for the Specialized High Schools, which at first glance may appear to be objective, actually ignores true merit. Students’ hard-earned grades, state test scores (about which schools have completely focused their efforts), awards and honors throughout years of middle school are irrelevant in the admissions process, as none of these factors are considered. 

CSS has recently obtained data from the NYCDOE that allows an outside organization, for the first time, to examine results of the Specialized High Schools Admission test.  We are not ready to release our findings, but our early analysis confirms what we had believed: the SHSAT simply bears little relation to middle school achievement. Why is this a problem? Because it appears that working hard in middle school, and performing well on both in-school grades, and statewide exams, does little to predict whether you can get into a Specialized High School.  In fact, most of the determinations of who will get into these high schools can be seen by screening that happens in 4th grade.  It’s not that the lack of diversity at these schools is unfair—it’s that the lack of fairness is creating a lack of diversity.

Performance on the SHSAT is determined by the resources of families who can get their kids to pass tests that are outside the school system. Essentially, what we are telling our students—work hard, get good grades, and perform well on state exams and you will get an equal chance to succeed—is simply a myth.  We are perpetrating a fantasy. The SHSAT exists as an end-around for the families that have the resources to enable their students to do extra work to pass it. And that is simply unfair.

The SHSAT-only admissions policy fuels an increasing inequality, as black and Latino students who take the test in large numbers continue to lose ground in admission. This year only about 4% of black applicants and less than 7% of Latino applicants were granted admission to any of the Specialized High Schools. As a result, the schools do not reflect the broad, rich diversity of the New York—where three-quarters of public school students are black or Latino.  Stuyvesant offered admission to only seven black students out of an incoming class of nearly 1,000. It is impossible that there could be so few bright, intelligent black eighth graders in the city. The single-test admissions policy is also unfair to many hard-working and deserving white and Asian-American students. In fact, many leading Asian-American organizations have vocally supported the call for change.

The NYC Department of Education is an outlier, as the only school district in the country that uses a test as a sole criterion for admission to its best high schools.  While all standardized tests can be gamed and studied, the SHSAT is especially unfair because it is not aligned with the curriculum students are expected to learn in middle school.  As a result, students who can afford expensive private prep classes enjoy a major advantage.  What’s more, the city has now admitted that it has no proof that the SHSAT measures anything close to merit, nor has it ever explained or tried to study what the test does measure at all.  Yet, parents are told each year that whoever gets the highest scores on this exam must be the smartest.  To the contrary, as one expert has found, the test scores of thousands of students who are denied admission to these elite schools are statistically indistinguishable from those who are granted admission. 

If the city must use a single test, it should use one of the existing, validated, state exams that all students in middle school already take, and for which every student receives preparation for in their school. 
It is the very arbitrariness of this policy and its discriminatory results, cloaked in a false shroud of “merit”, that has parents so riled up and has led to a federal civil rights investigation into the matter.

The time has come to change this backwards admissions policy, to end the myth about merit, and to challenge the notion that the Specialized High Schools would somehow be less elite if they employed assessment mechanisms that most other topic high schools in the country use.

The mayor has already signaled that he wants to make a change. He should start by announcing reforms to the admissions policy for the five newest Specialized High Schools forced to follow the test-only admissions policy by fiat of the Bloomberg administration. Mayoral control of schools means that with the stroke of a pen he could lift the test-only designation at these schools and adopt a new policy immediately.

In addition, the mayor should join the Council, the UFT, parents, students, education experts and community advocates in actively pushing for legislative change to create a fair admissions policy for the three oldest Specialized High Schools—Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech—which are required to use the test-only admissions policy under a dubious 1970’s state law enacted to stifle calls for greater diversity.

The city’s new leadership should convene community leaders and educational experts to study and provide recommendations on how to make admissions into Specialized High Schools fairer, more inclusive and based on an honest definition of merit.  I cannot stress enough that this must be based on evidence and data, instead of the ideological, emotional, and theory-based discussions that currently dominate.  CSS has recently obtained data on SHSAT scores and is comparing them to middle school performance.  Our early analysis leads us to believe that we can show how the current exam does nothing to actually measure the merit of New York City students.  There appear to be much easier, fairer, and objective ways—including using exams—to determine specialized high school admissions.

The SHSAT-only admissions policy is an arbitrary device that denies many gifted students access to an exemplary educational experience. New York City must do better because its students deserve better.

Last year CSS and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund co-authored a report, The Meaning of Merit: Alternatives for Determining Admission to New York City’s Specialized High Schools.

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