The Myth of Merit in New York City’s Elite Public Schools

David R. Jones

Every October nearly thirty thousand eighth 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 eight of the best public high schools in New York City.

The use of a single, unevaluated test for the Specialized High Schools, which at first glance may appear to be objective, actually ignores true merit. Students’ hard-earned grades, awards and honors throughout years of middle school are irrelevant in the admissions process, as none of these factors are considered.

The SHSAT-only  admissions policy also 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 four percent of black applicants and less than seven percent 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 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 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.

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. After all, how many families have $1,000 to $3,000 to spare for test preparation classes and private tutoring for their child? What’s more, the city has now admitted that it has no proof that the SHSAT measures anything close to merit. Yet parents are told each year that whoever gets the highest scores on this exam must be the smartest.

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 top high schools in the country use.

This month, Albany lawmakers proposed legislation that would require all eight Specialized High Schools to consider state test scores and GPA, as well as the current admissions test, in the admission process. The bill, introduced late in the legislative session, opens the door for a more robust public dialogue on current admissions policies for elite high schools.

Mayor de Blasio 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 policy that included multiple measures of student knowledge and potential as early as next year.

Toward setting such a policy, the mayor should also 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 a broad and honest definition of merit. In doing so, he would show his leadership on an issue illustrative of the glaring disparities across our education system when it comes to access to quality schools.

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 recently published report, The Meaning  of Merit: Alternatives for Determining Admission to New York City’s Specialized High Schools.




Issues Covered

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