What Will It Take To Alter Makeup of Top Schools?

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When 80,000 eighth-graders recently learned about their high school placement for next fall, the news took a familiar shape. Despite the high priority the Department of Education has placed on closing the achievement gap between the races, the city’s specialized, most competitive high school programs remain disproportionately Asian and white in a public school system that’s 70 percent black and Hispanic.

The citywide high school choice process requires eighth-graders to rank the schools they desire on an application submitted in December. The DOE informed them of the results in late March. Most students won seats at one of their top five school choices (although nearly 7,500 did not match with any high school and must participate in a second, supplemental admissions round). But about 5,400 students have known since early February where they’re headed next year – those who sat for the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), and scored high enough to be offered entry into one of the city’s eight specialized high schools, or who auditioned and won seats in the arts courses at LaGuardia High School.

The score on the SHSAT alone determines whether a student gains admission to one of the city’s specialized high schools. DOE ranks the test scores, compares the scores to applicants’ ranking of the schools they most wish to attend, and makes offers to eligible students. According to the department, just over half of the students who sat for the SHSAT in October are black or Hispanic – yet black and Hispanic students together count for only 14 percent of those admitted.

That’s despite steady, incremental gains on some standardized achievement tests, and ongoing DOE initiatives to prepare promising middle-school students for the specialized high-school exam.

Of the eight specialized high schools, only one, Brooklyn Latin, enrolls black and Hispanic students in proportions that reflect or exceed their presence in the overall population. One other school, the City College High School for Math, Science and Engineering (CCNY-MSE), comes close for Hispanic students, who are 30 percent of their students (compared to 40 percent of the citywide student population) but less so for black students, at 17 percent (32 percent citywide).

But Brooklyn Latin and CCNY-MSE, with a combined enrollment of about 630 students, are miniscule islands of racial diversity. At the three oldest and biggest specialized schools – Stuyvesant High School, Bronx School of Science and Brooklyn Tech – black students count for 2 percent, 4 percent and 13 percent, respectively, of all students. Hispanic kids represent 3 percent of Stuyvesant’s students overall, and 8 percent each at Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech. These three schools together serve 10,627 students – almost five times as many students as the other five specialized high schools combined. It’s also important to note that at the same three schools, Asian students comprise the majority, although Asians represent about 15 percent of the city’s students overall.

Deputy Mayor for Education Dennis M. Walcott, who has long advanced initiatives to increase minority representation, pronounced himself “not satisfied” with the situation. “While I think we’re trying to improve the numbers of students into these schools, I don’t think we as an administration are satisfied,” Walcott told City Limits.
Quantifying progress

Chancellor Joel Klein’s top deputies say the achievement gap is closing between the races – and in some places, especially in elementary school, it is narrowing, even as overall scores rise.

Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Marcia Lyles points to gains in fourth-grade math and reading scores as “success in beginning to close the shameful racial achievement gap.” But grade-school gains don’t carry over into eighth-grade scores on New York state standardized tests. And the progress students show on state tests is not mirrored on benchmark national assessments, which continue to document large race-linked achievement gaps. Testifying before the State Assembly Education Committee last month in Brooklyn, Lyles acknowledged far smaller gains in eighth-grade scores on the biannual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – only a three-point math gain since 2002, and “no progress in reading.”

Officials maintain it’s better than the past, however. “Historically, the gap had not been closing before,” said Deputy Mayor Walcott. “We’ve made tremendous strides – not that we can’t make better strides.” But “we have to accept the data” that shows flat NAEP scores, he says, “and hope with this coming NAEP, we’ll see middle school scores going up.”

Since 2002, the city’s NAEP scores in fourth grade math have been rising, even approaching the national average, ahead of many other large cities. Fourth-grade reading falls short of the national average, but well ahead of scores in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, DC. By eighth grade, however, math scores for New York City compare less well to the national average – only 57 percent of eighth graders have skills that are described as basic or higher, compared with 70 percent nationally. Reading scores show a similar gap: In New York City, scores for all students dropped 3 percent from 2003 to 2007, with 6 percent drops for black and Hispanic students – and 7 and 1 percent gains, respectively, for Asian and white eighth-graders.

Part of the problem of measuring progress lies in how it’s defined. Both the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and the local DOE aim to increase basic proficiency, according to Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College.

“The progress that has been made is not at the top,” says Pallas, “but in the lower and middle parts of the [student] distribution. There has been more success in getting black and Hispanic kids above the proficiency bar than in closing the overall gap.”

The overall gap, he said, “hasn’t really shrunk. One would hope to see rising numbers of black and Hispanic students in the exam schools,” but specialized-school enrollment is not “commensurate with changes in proficiency levels.”

Is incremental progress enough? Students in eighth grade now have been students in Mayor Bloomberg’s DOE for seven years, since first grade. Why aren’t more students of color part of the city’s most competitive schools? Over and above the rigor or the academic prestige conferred by the specialized schools, the comparative graduation rates also signal the difference: The 97 percent graduation rate at these schools far outstrips the others – as well as outpacing citywide graduation averages for all racial groups, especially black and Hispanic students.

To Walcott, one way to get more minority students into the elite programs is to make them seem within reach to more families. “Some parents may think they’re beyond the reach of their kids. We need to destigmatize those schools in the eyes of the parents, penetrate their consciousness.”

“People like the idea of a school that’s comfortable in their minds – not a zoned school, but a comfortable school, something that’s close by, not a lot of subways,” he said. “Whether parents have experience outside the local neighborhood, whether they ride public transportation, all that plays into the decision.”

“We’re trying to go to where the parents are, outside Manhattan,” Walcott said, via citywide and neighborhood-based school fairs. But getting the information to families doesn’t guarantee that students are equally ready, citywide, to ace the test.
Is the test fair?

Long debate over the fairness of the SHSAT splits along two lines. Purists point to an objective meritocracy – you pass the test, you’re in – while others say the test’s content and format favors some students over others, particularly families who can afford pricey test-prep tutors and practice classes.

This past fall, Joshua N. Feinman, Ph.D – a public school parent, Stuyvesant graduate, and chief economist of Deutsche Asset Management – published an analysis of the SHSAT – apparently the first to ask about its potential “predictive bias,” which occurs when test scores predict different outcomes for different groups of students, challenging the “one size fits all” testing paradigm. He was inspired to undertake the analysis by the experience of helping his daughter prepare for the exam.

“DOE has never studied, internally or by peer review, the predictive validity of the test,” said Feinman. His research documented gaps between the races and between boys and girls. But he also says “there are problems that transcend race and gender” – problems that have to do with the essential integrity of the test. In addition, Feinman showed that students with extremely high scores on either verbal or math sections can “outrank” students with solid scores in both sections, effectively limiting access to talented, well-rounded students. “The whole process violates generally accepted testing standards and practices,” including guidelines established by the American Psychological Association, Feinman said.

Neither Walcott nor DOE officials dispute the assertion that no study has evaluated the SHSAT’s objectivity – but they stand by it. “The test has been the test and should continue to be the test,” says Walcott.

“We don’t currently have any plans to do that kind of study,” said DOE spokesman Andrew Jacob, “although our examination of every standardized measure of student achievement shows that the SHSAT correctly measures how well students will do in the specialized high schools.” Shifting the focus from potential bias to performance, DOE says that test consistently predicts academic success. “The test is scientifically designed to do its job, which is to identify the highest-ability students among high-ability students. Its validity is demonstrated every year in the academic performance of students who are admitted to the specialized high schools.”

But, Jacob says, what’s currently true in the specialized schools isn’t the DOE’s long-term aim. “We absolutely want to see increases in the number of black and Hispanic students at the specialized high schools. But we don’t think the test is responsible for those groups being underrepresented. … Too many of our students attend middle schools that don’t give them the skills they need,” he said. That’s what prompted the implementation of the DOE’s recent Middle School Success initiatives (which grew out of the middle school task force). The aim, say both Jacob and Walcott, is to improve the quality of instruction so more students take and pass the test. The question of how quickly gains can be made to meaningfully benefit students is left unaddressed.

Qualifying for test prep

For the last 15 years, the city’s Specialized High School Institute has identified promising students and offered intensive summer and after-school test preparation, over the two years prior to the specialized high school exam.

Originally administered by individual districts, the program is now entirely managed by the DOE. Eligibility is determined by a student’s fifth-grade standardized test scores and attendance – which both must be high, and family income level – low enough to qualify for free lunch, long interpreted as a marker for poverty.

The program is intense and demanding: Students meet for five weeks in the summers following sixth and seventh grade, and have two sessions a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, during the school year. Participation is by invitation only and restricted to high-achieving, high-need students.

Even so, it’s a commitment many children and families can’t make: Of 6,200 students eligible for the program in 2008, fewer than 3,000 applied, of whom 2,100 were invited to participate. (When demand exceeds supply, DOE chooses students at random from the applicant pool.) Of those 2,100, 1,450 participated in the summer program before seventh grade. Only 1,300 of this group will return for their second summer, according to Jacob from DOE.

Not all of the students who complete the 16-month program end up taking the SHSAT – and of those who do, not all pass. But the patterns visible in elite-school hallways are echoed even among those involved in the Institute. According to the DOE, in 2008, 85 percent of white and 90 percent of Asian students who participated in the Institute actually took the test; about half earned admissions offers (compared with 19 percent of the eighth-graders citywide who sat for the test). Fewer black and Hispanic participants in the prep program (65 and 70 percent, respectively) took the same exam; about one in five scored high enough to merit offers. Data from 2009 show similar trends: Of the 647 black and Hispanic students from the Institute who completed the program (of 976 total), 533 took the test – and 22 percent of black students and 16 percent of Hispanic students were offered seats.

A new DOE effort to develop talented middle schoolers is set to launch in a pilot program in Upper Manhattan this April, although officials have not yet offered details on content, location, number of students to participate or what the program will entail. Unlike the existing program, the new one, “Express to Success,” is targeted at less-able kids – students who show promise but have scored below grade level on standardized exams. Funding, community partnerships, location, leadership and content have not been announced.

Beyond the elite eight

Deputy Mayor Walcott says that DOE has developed strong new options that add to the specialized high schools. “I want more students of color to be part of the specialized high schools – also, of the small schools, and the single-sex schools. Schools where they are motivated to apply, because that motivation means they’ll stay and graduate.” Speaking as a father of four, Walcott says, “I want your child to be in a position to turn down Townsend Harris or Stuy because you have other options that excite you just as much – not to have to default to schools where they don’t want to go.”

DOE spokesman Andy Jacob agrees. “Specialized high schools are no longer the only schools with high academic screens. …Many high schools admit students based on a very high academic screen, and some of these schools have higher percentages of black and Hispanic students than the specialized schools do.”

On the surface, Jacob’s statement is true. Yet these intimate, selective schools, like the Bedford Academy High School and Bronx Aerospace High School, serve far fewer students overall; higher numbers of black and Hispanic at small schools doesn’t mitigate the imbalance at larger schools. Again, whether small signs of progress translate into truly meaningful citywide gains remains uncertain. And, given the test-score gains since 2002, the issue is unlikely to be resolved before the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s two- or three-term tenure in office.

– Helen Zelon

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