Unmet Promises: The Mayor & Educational Equity

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

When Bill de Blasio ran for mayor, I asked him about the stark racial disparities in offers to New York City’s specialized high schools (SHS).  It was a real problem he told me, and agreed that the rank-order scoring of the single, unstandardized entrance exam, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), was the cause.

There was no way that in our big-city school system -- where nearly 70 percent of students were black and Latino – only 12 percent of the seats in these elite high schools went to these students. But that was a fact. We agreed that it was an ugly stain on our school system that needed to be corrected immediately.  When he was elected, I was eager to work with him on a solution. 

I’ve long been enamored of the University of Texas system, whereby the top students from each high school in the state are automatically offered admission to the top universities. The Texas system is based on evidence that class rank, above all, is the greatest predictor of future success, much more than standardized test scores.

We can talk all we want about equity, but we also need to base our policy proposals on real research.  To that end, we worked with the mayor’s staff to obtain data that would allow us to model a system similar to Texas. At the same time, I wanted to ensure that we were rewarding real excellence. So my staff simulated a model whereby only the top three percent of students from each middle school in the city -- the very best of the best -- would be offered automatic admission to a SHS, providing that they met a citywide bar for excellence.

In the proposal we produced, only one percent of offers to the eight SHS would change from those under the current system, but the numbers of blacks and Latinos receiving offers would double.  While I’m not sure this work is bold enough, it would at least be an easy way to start.  Essentially, we would be rewarding the valedictorians, salutatorians, and in some cases, the third best student from every middle school.  And under our plan, average proficiency of those receiving offers, according to state test scores, would actually increase compared to those currently receiving offers.

I was sure the mayor would work with us to implement the proposal.  By now, most of us know that the oldest three SHS (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech) have their admissions policy governed by state law, and would require legislation to pass to change them.  But admissions policies at the newest five SHS could be changed by the mayor himself. We suggested implementing our proposal at those schools immediately, concurrent to state-level advocacy for the older three SHS.  We could then spotlight and evaluate the five newer schools, show that the sky didn’t fall, and use the experience as proof positive for broader advocacy against the SHSAT. We even argued for using the SHSAT for 80 percent of the offers for those five schools, just to be politically palatable.

We heard nothing further from City Hall. Well, that’s not exactly true.  Two years ago, we heard rumblings and whispers that it was too politically difficult, that there might be legal challenges, and that the mayor would pick this up next year.  But next year became next year, with no action on the proposal. Instead, every year our mayor has announced other plans that he knows won’t work: more test prep, more broadly offering the test, etc.

Those actions haven’t worked because the SHSAT is scored in rank order. Even if you do really well that doesn’t matter if others, who have had more resources to do private test prep -- costing about $1,400 -- score higher than you. There’s no passing, there is only competing.  And what’s it led to?  Even lower numbers of blacks and Latinos at the SHS.   

This is not what public education should look like. That’s what a system of white supremacy looks like, forcing public school students, many of whom are kids of color of different ethnicities and nationalities, to compete with each other, Hunger Games style, for these limited seats at these schools. The SHSAT has become a symbol of overall inequity in our city’s public education system.

As the latest round of embarrassing SHS admissions results were announced a couple of weeks ago, Mayor de Blasio spun his excuses yet again: “we need to do more,” “it’s a state issue,” etc. He makes these hollow statements, but he knows full well that he could be working toward real change. This is not how you become the national leader of a progressive Democratic Party.  

Issues Covered

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