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.
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.
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.
A similar debate took place over 40 years ago. In 1971, a superintendent of one of the city’s school districts, Alfredo Mathew, charged that the admissions test used for the Bronx High School of Science, which at that time was the most selective school in the country, was “a privileged educational center for children of the White middle class because ‘culturally’ oriented examinations worked to ‘screen out’ black and Puerto Rican students who could succeed at the school,” according to a 1971 New York Times article. He called for a change of admissions policy, saying that it should be based solely on recommendations. At the time, Republican state senator John D. Calandra and Democratic assemblyman Burton G. Hecht sponsored a bill requiring admissions to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech to be based on scores from a single test. The Hecht-Calandra Act was signed into law by Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
The Times at the time wrote, “Many city parents look upon these schools as islands of educational excellence and opportunity in the problem-racked public school system.”
The admissions policy has been an on-and-off debate ever since the 1971 bill. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg said he saw no need to change the admissions policy.
“I think that Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be,” he said at a news conference in 2012. “There’s nothing subjective about this. You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is. That’s been the tradition in these schools since they were founded, and it’s going to continue to be.”
But de Blasio does not think the current admissions policy is fair, and will continue to try to persuade the legislature to change the law. “I do not believe a single test should be determinative, particularly for something that is as life-changing for so many young people,” he said.
Jeffrey N. Maclin, a spokesman for the antipoverty group Community Service Society, expressed disappointment that few lawmakers were supporting the bills. “Perhaps if more black and Latino lawmakers were vocal about how this admission policy perpetuates inequality and denies qualified students access to the city’s elite schools,” he said, “we’d see momentum build for changing the law and creating a fairer system.”
Many associations made up of parents, alumni, and educators opposed the bill to change the 1971 law. They say that the current admissions policy is meritocratic and unbiased and that changing it could hurt the academic quality of the schools.
The Bronx Science Alumni Association released a statement in opposition to the bill in June. “We stand for an admissions process that is a pure meritocracy, with one standard that is transparent and incorruptible,” the association wrote. It argued that using GPA as a criterion for admissions is flawed because middle schools have different grading systems, and averages cannot therefore be fairly compared. “Preserving the objectivity of the admissions process is necessary to maintain the high educational standards of the specialized schools.”
In a press release, the Brooklyn Tech PTA also defended the school’s policy. The PTA noted the school’s diverse population, explaining that 60 nationalities are represented in the student population, and that English is not the first language for more than two thirds of the students’ families. The press release also stated that almost 60 percent of the students qualify under federal guidelines for free or reduced-price lunch. “The specialized public high schools are the solution, not the problem,” it wrote.
— Molly Wharton is an intern at National Review.