CityViews: Mayor Must Stop Dragging His Feet on Specialized High School Reform

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Jim.henderson

Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, one of the city's eight Specialized High Schools. In the 2016-17 school year, it was 1 percent Black, 3 percent Latino, 18 percent White and 75 percent Asian.

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.

15 thoughts on “CityViews: Mayor Must Stop Dragging His Feet on Specialized High School Reform

  1. Speaking from my personal experience as a Stuyvesant student, we’re all just tired of the constant controversy and speculation that surrounds any aspect of our school that is slightly out of the ordinary. Admission to Stuy isn’t a form of segregation, it’s a test on which some students will get a high enough score, and some won’t. Most of us are just good test takers who want to have a normal high school experience, and get into college. One thing that isn’t helping with that is the labels that are slapped upon us from the moment we get our acceptance letters.

  2. What’s to stop Mr. Treschan from creating a new specialized high school whose admissions criteria is that you be in the top 3% gradewise of your middle school? The student body will be different than the student body of the traditional specialized high schools, but according to the author just as high achieving and meritorious and more diverse and therefore a welcome addition to the already successful specialized schools which base admission on the SHSAT. Whether top students and colleges prefer one type of high school or the other is up to them, and I’m sure they’ll end up selecting from both.

    Mr, Treschan is right that students with the highest grades aren’t necessarily the ones who do best on the SHSAT and vice versa. The SHSAT is designed to identify intellectual skills, not possession of a fixed body of knowledge, or the ability to please educational authorities, show up consistently, be a perfectionist, or any of the other things necessary for achieving extremely high grades.

    That also means that a test like the SHSAT should not require extensive or expensive preparation or coaching (assuming students having been performing well in reading and math all along) . You can’t stop someone with money from trying to get their kid ahead with prep classes, but that doesn’t stop someone without the prep classes from doing just as well. Perhaps the real tragedy is how few of our public school students in lower income minority communities are performing at a decent level in elementary school. By the time they get to middle school, they just don’t have a fighting chance at a citywide test.

  3. The problem is not about money. It is about priorities. Asian communities have it in their heads that their kids should go to specialized high schools by the time they are born. They have more than ten years to save money for test prep.

    Black communities do not have such forward thinking. Despite specialized high schools being public schools with infomation presented on the Board of Ed website, black communities do not push hard enough as a group for their children to get into these schools. They wait until their children are in middle schools to think about preparation, thus making it more difficult to save money for a prep course. In addition, even if these students are preppred, they don’t understand the commitment that comes with preparation because test prep is not a part of their culture.

    The city can poour millions of dollars into test prep and even change admission requirements, but that will do nothing to change the mentality of the people that they are trying to help. Unless that happens, there will be no effective change.

    • I am in total agreement with you. The mayor want to put an end to testing for admission to SHS and used instead some other selection criteria. There are some other top performing middle and high schools where students are selected without testing and the students population is no different from the SHS. In some cases the student majority change from 60% Asian to 60% white. Blacks and other so-called minority do not benefit from the selection process. Mr. Mayor you need to change the ethic make up Goldstein HS, Millennium HS Midwood HS, Marktwain middle, Cunningham middle, Bay Accademy and many more schools in the other parts of the city where there are few students of color . All people have brains. Everyone who wants to pass the test can do so if they apply themselves, but black students refused to invest in the time to prepare for the test. They want a free ride. Mr Mayor the Asian students who dominate the SHSAT are not rich. Most of them are just as poor as any so-called minority. The SHSAT must stay in place. Mr Mayor don’t reward effortlessness.

  4. 1) If 3/4 of the students are non-white then the schools aren’t segregated.
    2) The tests do cover material taught in K-8. Math and English.
    3) There are plenty of prep programs and even the priciest ones offer a significant discount for outer borough locations (because they pay outer borough rent).
    4) Of the non-white students, most are the children of immigrants – who in many if not most cases have little advanced education and speak little or no English and in fact do not even use the same alphabet that English uses. Given that half the test is English, that is a bigger disadvantage than the disadvantage faced by students whose parents were born and raised in the US and speak English.
    5) There is an entirely separate set of STEM and other elite public high schools that admit students based on grades, easays, interviews and attendance. Many are located very close to NYCHA-land.

    You know that video of the guy lining people up and telling them to take one or two steps up or back?

    These kids start out seven steps back.

    If they leapfrog everyone else, that’s not inequality- it’s the equalizer.

  5. (1) SHSs are not the only elite public (free) high schools.
    There is an entirely separate track, with separate admissions and application processes, that includes STEM and other elite schools throughout NYC. These schools admit students based not on the SHSAT but on grades, state test results, attendance and in some cases essays and/or work samples and/or interviews. One test is not the sole or even most likely chance for your kid to avoid the neighborhood flunky school. Whether the non SHSs are “as good” as the SHSs is a matter of opinion and of what is best for your kid. These other schools offer AP and Honors programs, foreign languages, etc… Most of them are rigorous but do not work students to the bone. The admissions process involves both sets of schools – and students receiving a SHS offer also receive an offer from a non-SHS – some choose the non-SHS.

    (2) A majority of SHS students and accepted students are non-white.
    Most are Asian – which for the most part means children of immigrants who speak little or no English. And half of the test is English Language Arts! You know the video of the guy lining a bunch of people up in a field and asking some to take two steps forward or backward based on factors related to their upbringing or parents’ economic situation? Yeah – these kids start out 7 steps back. These “Asians” do not grow up in TriBeCa penthouses with parents working as EM analysts for Goldman. They grow up off Canal Street, in tenements above those shops with ducks hanging in the window and squid laid out over ice in the doorway. Their parents’ language doesn’t even use the same alphabet. Their rise is the epitome of the American Dream. If they passed you, that’s not racism and it’s not the City’s fault – the City provided the ultimate ladder and it is simply a fact that not everyone climbs it.

    SHSs are not a vestige of segregation and inequality. They are an example of integration and they are the equalizer.

    Racism and segregation are real words with real meaning. And that meaning isn’t “every time someone who happens to not be white doesn’t get everything that he wants.” The race card simply has no place in this particular deck.

  6. I am an Asian student currently attending a specialized high school- I basically fit right into the stereotype of the “smart Asian kid”. I come from a single income household of four. Ever since the fifth grade, I have had the mindset that if I work hard, I will be able to afford a better life than my parents, who immigrated to the US with literally a single suite case, could. I, as well as my peers, got into these schools because of sheer intrinsic intelligence.

    An overwhelming majority of students at specialized high schools are economically disadvantaged. Nearly half of Stuyvesant gets free/reduced lunch, and it is even worse at Brooklyn Tech, where the number is a staggering 60 percent. In addition, the majority of students at these schools are Asian. Stuyvesant is 74% Asian, Brooklyn Tech is 61% Asian, and Staten Island Tech is half Asian. Claiming that students of specialized high schools are privileged begs the question- how come those fancy private schools are not ranked anywhere as high? Why aren’t students who live in those big houses that I can only ever dream my family will be able to afford don’t make up the majority of specialized high schools? To say that students at these schools gain entrance due to anything but intelligence is extremely demeaning and insulting. Words cannot describe how much work, energy, and stamina I have poured into my schoolwork these last couple of years. I will not have my efforts and achievements be reduced all because I go to a school of little Blacks and Hispanics.

    So yes, Black and Hispanics make up very little of the student populations of these schools, but has it ever occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, it’s due to something other than racism/the wage gap/privilege? These schools are made for students who can rise above the ranks and achieve beyond. If you don’t have what it takes, than you just have to accept it and stop pitying yourself.

  7. You are absolutely right. Diviersity should not be achived at the cost of academic quality. The fact that some Black and Latino students can not go to the specialized HS is NOT becasue of discrinination. Black and Latino students should be better prepared academically in middle schools, and the government should focus on making their middle school better. Asian students do better acaemdically because they work harder and their family prioritize education. So let us not punish the hard work and strong family value, rather we should encourage Black and Latino family to learn from Asian families. We should not make this as a race issues. We do not want to have racial profiling by policy, but we are happy to have racial profiling when it comes to education. As Martin Luther King Jr. said “Judge me not by the color of my skin, but the content of my character”. This is just another form of racism, but against Asian students.

    • So, just to point out the obvious, you just declared that Asian students work harder than Blacks or Latinos, then insisted we not profile by race.

      • Asians are the ones discriminated against because people want to take away our hard work for what they call “diversity”. You shouldn’t judge people by their race. Black and Latino people have the same opportunities as Asians. If they want to go to a good high school, work hard. If Asians can do it Latinos and Blacks can too.

  8. Pursuing diversity, whether that is in elite NYC high schools, or whether that is in management ranks of bulge-bracket firms, is a noble and worthwhile objective and one that should be pursued with vigor and enthusiasm. However, the means by which we achieve this goal is equally important. The proposal to allocate a percentage of high-performing students from each or certain NYC middle schools for entry in these specialized and very special schools is misguided and counterproductive.

    Although the most recent De Blasio proposal may eventually create what appears to be a representative student population within each of these schools, the proposal will most certainly: (1) devalue the currency of these schools; (2) create disincentives among students to compete and excel; and, most importantly, (3) create an unfair playing field while being paraded as a more equitable/more progressive solution.

    (1) The average of any individual measure — the time to complete the 100-yard dash, weight of the members of the wrestling team, or the score on a standardized test — of the highest performers from the *entire* city must be greater than or equal to the average of the highest performers in each of the middle schools. This MUST BE mathematically true.

    By selecting those students who are not necessarily the city’s absolute best test takers will with certainty lower the averages on standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, etc. So, what? Exam scores are important but they are not and should not be the sole measure, right? Yes, of course, there is truth in that. But, the value that these schools bring is derived in part from a highly selective process, which brings together high ACADEMIC performers, in much the same was as an all-star team brings together the best across the country (not the most representative). Take that away, academic performance suffers, test scores normalize, admissions to elite colleges drops and these specialized schools are no longer all that special.

    (2) Competition diminishes. A precocious 8th grader seeking admission to one of these elite schools, whether through innate ambition or through expectations set by those around them, comes to understand that to gain entry will require competing with students across the entire city and not just being in the top 7% of their class of a few hundred students. Why should those ambitions and desire to excel be dampened by lowering the bar? Should we not be seeking to raise the bar for all? For those who are disadvantaged in this process, we should seek to strengthen their capabilities so that they can not only gain admission into these schools but compete aggressively once admitted. The strength of these specialized schools is derived not only selecting the highest caliber students, but also through honing their skills and instincts in a highly competitive crucible. These are not schools for everyone — these schools demand a level of maturity, commitment and perseverance that is not for the weak and are specifically designed to meet the needs of an exceptional brand of student.

    (3) Unfair playing field. For me, what is most troublesome, is that this desire to make these schools more representative of NYC is being framed as somehow more fair, ethical, progressive, etc — this simply could not be farther from the truth. The reality is nothing could be more objective and more fair than ranking students based on a well-understood set of criteria and is administered by the same set of rules for all. To the extent that certain groups are underrepresented, the city can and should do all that it can to encourage higher levels of participation/preparation among students of such groups. Can you imagine a sports team selected by the methods as proposed by Mr. De Blasio?

    Mr. De Blasio’s arguments that these schools do not represent NYC demographics is based in part on what he has suggested is a lack of information, lack of participation and lack of preparation (possibly due to a lack of financial resources). There are simpler ways to overcome these hurdles to achieve more equitable/representative outcomes.

    (1) Spread the word. Make sure that every high-achieving student at all middle schools is aware of the exam and is aware of procedures for participating in the process. This can be done in any number of ways, including emails, parent/teacher conferences, websites, postings at schools, tracked conversations from school counselors with students, etc.; These efforts can redoubled in those areas with low participation rates.

    (2) Incentivize high achieving students from underrepresented schools to take the entrance exams. Again, there are any number of ways to get students from underrepresented schools/school districts to take the exam, including tracking the number of students taking the exam as part of the school’s assessment and funding, making it logistically easier for these students to take the exam (elimination of exam fees, transportation passes, etc.), and, ultimately, providing college scholarships to these students for exam participation (they are already high achieving students, so I expect are probably deserving of scholarships).

    (3) Test preparation. Again, there are any number of ways, including encouraging private companies/organizations through tax incentives to donate to test prep courses, granting scholarships specifically for test preparation, providing test preparation materials online or by mail, etc. to those students demonstrating the highest likelihood of gaining admission to these schools.

    Let’s keep these specialized schools special.

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