New York City mayor Bill de Blasio says that admissions to the city’s top public high schools, which for 43 years have been based on scores from a standardized test, need to change.
A bill introduced in the state legislature this spring called for additional criteria to be used in making admissions decisions, such as GPA and class ranking. Proponents claimed this would fix the underrepresentation of minorities at specialized schools. The bill, which was proposed without input from students, parents, or educators, failed to pass during this year’s legislative session.
But de Blasio and the United Federation of Teachers are likely to make a stronger push for the bill next year, according to Crain’s New York Business. “We cannot have a dynamic where some of our greatest educational options are only available to people from certain backgrounds,” de Blasio said at an April news briefing.
New York City has nine specialized high schools, eight of which admit students solely on the basis of of their scores on the SHSAT (the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test). This includes Bronx Science, the Brooklyn Latin School, Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, and four smaller schools. The exception to the SHSAT-based admissions is LaGuardia, a music and performing-arts school where acceptance is based on an audition and academic records.
The de Blasio administration has unilateral power to modify the admissions policy of five of the high schools. But a 1971 state law requires that Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science use scores from the SHSAT exclusively, and so the mayor needs the state’s legislature to change the policies of those schools.
According to the Education Department, of the 3,292 students at Stuyvesant this past year, 73 percent are Asian, 22 percent white, 2 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent black. Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech have higher percentages of black students: 5 percent and 14 percent respectively. Hispanic students make up 10 percent and 13 percent respectively.
This is a sharp contrast to the ethnic makeup of the entire city’s public-school population of 1.1 million students: 15 percent Asian, 15 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic, and 28 percent black.
The SHSAT is a 2½-hour multiple-choice exam that tests verbal and math skills. Students are admitted based on their scores, with consideration given to preferences that students list. In 2014, 27,817 students took the SHSAT, and 5,096 were accepted into one of the schools, according to Bloomberg.
The underrepresentation of black and Latino students at the top schools is not due only to lower scores on the SHSAT. The percentages of black and Latino students who take the test at all are somewhat smaller than those for other groups.
The New York Times reported in 2010 that out of the 27,000 students who took the test that year, 23 percent were black, and 20 percent Hispanic. Asians, who make up 14 percent of the overall school system, accounted for 26 percent of the students who took the test.
Several years ago, the city began offers a free test-prep program black and Hispanic students, but after a legal challenge, it had to open up the program to all students. The New York Times reports that 43 percent of the students who enroll in the program are Asian.
The city’s efforts at racial micromanagement have caused other tensions as well.
Some Asian students feel under attack by proponents of a less-rigorous admissions policy. An article in the Times reports that many students saw criticism of the SHSAT as a cultural attack on groups that have performed well on the test and are highly represented in the elite schools. The paper says Asians students are “puzzled about having to defend a process they viewed as a vital steppingstone for immigrants.” Many Asian students are immigrants and cannot afford to attend the city’s private schools. “It’s like someone is blaming you for something that isn’t actually your fault,” Brooklyn Tech sophomore Faria Kabir, who emigrated from Bangladesh at age 6, tells the Grey Lady.