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

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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.

5 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.

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