The New York City Department of Education just released the data on the offers that it made for admission to its eight Specialized High Schools, the crown jewels of the city’s public education system. Unsurprisingly, the shares of Black and Latino students receiving offers remains abysmally low, at just 10 percent, despite the fact that these students make up over two-thirds of eligible eighth graders.
As a candidate, Bill de Blasio spoke regularly about his desire to change these trends. As mayor, despite continued big talk, he has taken baby steps, clearly more cosmetic than substantive in nature. These efforts have included expanding opportunities to take the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) and public test prep—the same steps taken by previous administrations, which have never led to any improvement in racial equity. The reason is that these types of interventions address the “supply side” of the market for admission to the SHS—how students prepare themselves. And as the failure of the Soviet economy has taught pretty much everyone else, truly changing how markets work also requires addressing the “demand side” of the equation; in this case, how decisions are made about who gets offers to those schools.
The current demand for admission into the SHS is based solely on one factor: rank-order scoring on a citywide exam, the SHSAT, that exists separate from the existing middle-school curriculum, and for which students study and prepare on their own. This preparation largely takes place in private programs, which benefits those students whose families have the resources to pay for and make time for them. As has been documented, these programs, which average in cost at about $1,400, focus on results, rather than any real learning. So, even when low-income immigrants gain entry through intensive study–as many do–it’s not as the result of anything real upon which we should base our systems of deciding what merit looks like.
There is a better way. Across the country, school systems have recognized the context matters. Most famously, public universities in Texas use a Top 10 Percent plan, whereby the best students from every school get changes to attend senior colleges. We can do the same thing here.
My organization analyzed data that allowed us to model a new possible approach to SHS admission, one that would measure merit in an objectively fairer way. We have proposed a plan that would offer admission to at least one SHS to all middle-school students that place in the top three percent of their school, if they meet a citywide bar for excellence. Our proposal would use the existing state exams that all students, unlike the SHSAT, study for and take as part of their regular middle-school activities, to determine the top three percentiles. And unlike the SHSAT, these state exams are standardized to the existing middle school curriculum; again, the same one that all students get, and which determine pretty much every other proficiency-based determination in our school system. Our plan could also be complemented with use of student grades or other assessments, for those worried about using one test alone.
The results of our plan would double the number of black and Latino offers at the SHS, while only replacing nine percent of those who currently get in through the SHSAT. Our plan would also increase overall levels of academic proficiency at the SHS, since many who get in now have not performed as well on traditional middle school assessments, essentially using the SHSAT as a backdoor entryway. And perhaps most importantly, valedictorians and salutatorians from the across the city, who achieve at high levels despite school, families, and communities with much fewer resources, and who are in so many cases currently shut out from the SHS, would be justly rewarded with the opportunities to attend a great high school with high achievers from across the city. These are our best students, and they deserve it.
We would like to think of the Specialized High Schools as public institutions that narrow the gap between the haves and have nots, but in actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. Today, they are nothing more than perpetuators of inequality, yet another set of public institutions cynically designed to keep “those kids” away from “these kids.” And this mayor is doing nothing about it. What’s worse, he’s playing the same cynical game that so many politicians do, spending money on programs he knows won’t work, just for the sake of appearances. I mean, his son already graduated from Brooklyn Tech, so it’s possible he’s just not concerned about it anymore.
Some argue that the use of the SHSAT is engrained in a state law, and out of the mayor’s control. But this is far too easy an excuse. For one, five of the eight SHS are not part of that state law, and for which the SHSAT could be replaced with the stroke of a pen. Second, there is no chance at a change at the state level without New York City making a public statement that it is time to do away with the SHSAT, and actually give every student in the city a chance at admission to these schools. Mr. Mayor, you’ve been elected to a second term, and you just named a new chancellor. It’s time to step up.
Lazar Treschan is director of youth policy for the Community Service Society of New York.