New York City has eight elite specialized public high schools, which admit students entirely on the basis of their scores on a standardized test called the Specialized High School Aptitude Test (SHSAT). Only the top 5% of New York students qualify for admission to the specialized high schools, and admissions are very competitive, particularly for Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Technical High School, and Bronx High School for Science.
These schools have also become predominantly Asian over the course of the last several decades. Today, Stuyvesant’s student body is 72 percent Asian, about 22 percent white, two percent Latino only about one percent black, even though black and Latino students together comprise about 70 percent of public school students in New York City.
In an editorial on the education news site Chalkbeat, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio blasted the racial composition of the specialized high schools as a “monumental injustice,” and proposed eliminating the SHSAT and replacing it with a plan he believes is more fair.
De Blasio’s plan to purge Asians
The mayor’s plan has two parts: First he will expand an affirmative action program, called the “Discovery” program, that lets low-income students with lower test scores into the specialized schools. Just 4 percent of specialized high school students got in under this program in 2017, but de Blasio will expand this program to fill 20 percent of the seats. The mayor can implement this on his own, and it is already happening.
The more ambitious part of the mayor’s plan, which requires approval from the state legislature, involves eliminating the SHSAT and, instead, offering admission at specialized high schools to students based on their middle school class rank, contingent on them also scoring above the 75th percentile on state-mandated achievement tests. An NYU Steinhardt study concluded that allocating seats in specialized high schools to each middle school is the only way to achieve black and Latino representation in proportions that resemble those of the overall school system.
As de Blasio points out, although there are more than six hundred middle schools in New York city, half of students admitted to specialized high schools come from just 21 middle schools. A New York Post analysis found that those schools are either middle schools for gifted students, magnet programs with selective admissions or neighborhood schools in places like Fresh Meadows, Queens which is home to a large concentration of Korean immigrants, and Flushing, Queens, which is predominantly Chinese.
By dividing seats at the specialized high schools equally among middle schools, de Blasio’s plan uses the fact that the city’s top Asian students are concentrated in certain middle schools to effectively cap the number of seats they can earn. This plan also punishes students who attend selective middle schools for gifted students by allocating those schools the same number of seats as schools where the overall student body is much less accomplished. By turning a citywide competition into 600 competitions, each localized within a single middle school, this plan protects students at low-performing schools from competition with higher-performing students in other parts of the city.
The mayor estimates this will increase black and Latino enrollment at the specialized schools to about 45%. Although his editorial doesn’t mention Asians at all, his plan is designed to displace them.
Defending the mayor’s plan against protests from Asian parents, New York City’s Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza said: “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.”
But Asians don’t claim to own the specialized schools by some ethnic birthright. They earn their spots in them, and these kids would be the most qualified students by any objective measure that anyone can imagine. The mayor is trying to abolish competitive admissions in favor of race-based allocations, he is trying to exclude the best students by limiting the number of seats in the specialized high schools that the best middle schools can earn.
The test is a fair standard for admissions
Mayor de Blasio argues that a single test isn’t a good measure of student accomplishment, and he argues that black and Latino students are disadvantaged because of inequalities in availability of test prep.
Private testing companies sell SHSAT prep courses to New York students that cost more than $1000, and private tutors can charge more than $100 per hour. Test detractors point to inequalities in access to these services to explain the racial disparities in specialized high school admissions. They argue that it is unfair that Asian American families are highly motivated to get their children into top schools, that the kids study very hard, and that the parents are willing to spend all they can afford on test prep.
However, socioeconomic factors cannot explain the demographics of NYC’s specialized schools. Asian Americans have the highest poverty rates of any racial group in New York, and 44 percent of students at the specialized high schools come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced school lunch. Moreover, the city has spent millions of dollars to provide test prep to black and Latino students, so all talented students in the city should have access to prep materials.
And if getting into the specialized high schools was as simple as paying for expensive prep to get a top score, there would be a lot more affluent white kids at these schools. The specialized schools are equivalent to or better than elite private schools, and even the most lavish test prep is far less expensive than four years of private school tuition in New York. If it was possible to reliably purchase scores by spending on test prep, then rich families would be happy to spend whatever was necessary, because it would actually save them hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run.
The SHSAT actually does not appear to be any more susceptible to prep than any other major standardized test, and other tests appear to corroborate SHSAT’s results. Students who test into specialized high schools are often the same students who have previously tested into gifted and talented programs in elementary school, and students at the specialized high schools go on to perform extremely well on the SAT. Stuy’s class of 2018 included 165 National Merit semifinalists, which requires earning a PSAT score in the top 1% of all students who take the test in the state of New York. Stuyvesant has a 100% graduation rate, and the median Stuy graduate earns a 1460 composite SAT score.
The fact that the SHSAT reaches substantially the same results as both early-childhood gifted and talented assessments and college entrance exams suggests that some trait exists which all these tests are identifying in the same students. Studies have shown that high test scores correlate strongly with career success across numerous fields, and the long lists of famous and successful Stuyvesant and Bronx Science alumni shows that the SHSAT has a record of identifying talent.
This plan will destroy the specialized schools
Specialized high schools don’t have extraordinary facilities. They don’t have more resources per student than other public schools. They don’t have lower student-to-faculty ratios. New York’s specialized schools are elite because the students in them are elite. Currently, in order to get into any of the specialized schools, students must score in the top 5% citywide, and it takes a score in about the top 2% to get into Stuyvesant.
As a result, Stuy is one of the most elite high schools in the United States. And it’s a public school, free to attend for anyone who places into it. Comparable private schools, like The Dalton School and Packer Collegiate Institute cost nearly $50,000 in annual tuition.
The proposed changes will open these schools up to students scoring as low as the 75th percentile on a state achievement test. Unlike SHSAT, which only students hoping for seats in specialized high-schools take, all students sit for the state achievement test, including those in special education, de Blasio’s policy will admit students who fall much lower within a much larger and lower-achieving set of tested students.
While de Blasio believes his more racially inclusive standard is a better measure of merit than the SHSAT, taking a school that admits only students with elite test scores and opening it up to students with mediocre scores is the very definition of watering down admissions standards.
When these schools are opened to students who cannot earn “advanced” math scores on state achievement tests, specialized schools will have to expand lower level course offerings at the expense of the huge array of AP and college level classes they currently offer. When students graduate from Stuyvesant and Bronx Science with median SATs below 1100, these schools will no longer be worth a long subway commute from Fresh Meadows or Flushing, they’ll no longer be feeders to the Ivies, and they’ll no longer be viewed by white parents as an alternative to elite private schools for high achieving students.
So the top students will abandon these schools, and the jewels of the New York public school system — the schools with the highest test scores, the chess championships, and the internationally-ranked robotics clubs — will probably end up being the neighborhood schools in Flushing, Fresh Meadows and Chinatown. The best schools are where the best students are, and that means Bill de Blasio can’t take Stuyvesant and Bronx Science away from these kids, because these kids are Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.
The disparities measured by SHSAT reflect real performance deficits
The disparities in test scores that de Blasio considers such an injustice are the result of decades of policy decisions by city officials that have failed to cultivate academic excellence in most of the city’s middle schools, and have failed to prepare black and Latino students to compete with whites and Asians for selective admissions to specialized high schools or to selective colleges.
Chalkbeat, the same outlet where de Blasio announced his proposal, published an essay in 2017 by a black student named Yacine Fall, who was then a senior at Beacon High School, a selective and predominantly white public school in Manhattan. Beacon picks a class of 350 students out of more than 6000 eighth graders who list it among their top choices in the citywide high school selection process. It does not use the SHSAT, which is only for the eight specialized high schools, but, instead, it assesses students on the basis of their grades, state test scores, a portfolio of submitted work and an interview. But, while Beacon is selective, the median SAT scores of its graduating seniors are a full standard deviation lower than those at Bronx Science or Stuyvesant.
Fall explained that she undertook the task of selecting a top high school out of the phone book-sized catalog and navigating the city’s complicated high-school matching system on her own, at age 13, because her parents were immigrants who did not understand New York’s education system. If she had not participated in the high school application process, which many black students do not, she would have been zoned into a neighborhood school where only 7 percent of students graduated ready to do college work. And even though she was apparently a top student at her middle school, there was nobody there to help make sure Fall got to go to a high school that would cultivate her talents.
But, despite being hardworking and highly motivated, Fall was shocked by the academic demands placed on her at Beacon. “I didn’t realize that an A in Harlem was not the same as an A in a majority-white high school on the Upper West Side,” she wrote. She said her “black and brown peers [at Beacon] struggled to stay afloat and were barely passing their classes.”
They were having such a hard time because policymakers like Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza and their predecessors failed. In the 1980s and 1990s, black and Latino representation at the specialized schools was much higher. But then, the city scaled back tracking in its schools, arguing that honors and college-prep classes were much whiter than the school system overall, and many minority students were segregated into the lower tracks.
Today, some tracking persists in the form of programs like the gifted and talented middle schools. Selective high schools like Beacon and the specialized schools themselves are advanced tracks, but only a small percentage of students are eligible to participate in these programs, and there are far fewer seats in gifted schools than there are students who qualify for them. Honors and college prep classes used to be available in most New York schools, and those programs have fallen out of favor.
Syed Ali and Margaret Chin point out in The Atlantic, however, that, while honors and college prep tracks were disproportionately white, they still included a lot of black and Latino students, and offered those students opportunities for success. When those programs were abolished, whites fled the NYC public schools for suburban districts or private schools, and talented black and Latino kids from less affluent backgrounds were kicked into mixed-ability classrooms with much lower-performing students.
Tracking and ability grouping have documented negative impacts on weak students. Placing a student in a remedial class becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing the likelihood that his academic performance will fall further behind, and lowering the odds that he will complete high school. These students learn better in classrooms shared with higher-performing students.
However, those higher-performing students get nothing from being in classes with low performers, and get substantial benefits from being tracked into faster-moving classes with other top students. These students languish in mixed-ability classrooms as teachers focus on the slower students, or they’re conscripted to help teach their classmates the skills they’ve already mastered. And these students run in place while students in honors and gifted tracks press relentlessly forward.
In New York, one in five public school students in grades K-8 are “chronically absent,” which means they miss more than a month of school each year. Chronically absent students are disproportionately likely to be black or Latino, and unlikely to be Asian. In 148 New York elementary and middle schools, more than a third of students are chronically absent. The implications of a large percentage of students missing a sixth of their instructional time are obvious: This slows class progress considerably, and these students drag everyone else’s performance down. In schools with high percentages of chronically absent students, fewer than 20 percent of students earned passing scores on state assessments.
Schools should be doing all they can to help these students get the best outcomes possible, given their problems, but helping these students shouldn’t come at the expense of keeping top students from disadvantaged minority backgrounds on pace to compete with white and Asian students who attend schools that don’t have to deal with high levels of chronic absenteeism and other kinds of social dysfunction.
Bill de Blasio is right that kids who fall a few points shy of the cutoff on the SHSAT shouldn’t be consigned to low-achieving schools with classmates who barely even show up for school. But the solution isn’t to open up the specialized schools to lower-scoring students. Policymakers are failing to prepare black and Latino children to compete for selective admissions, and then they are claiming that the idea of selective admissions is racist because they don’t like the outcomes of their own policies.
Instead of lowering the standards for specialized high schools, the city needs to institute more honors classes at predominantly black and Latino elementary and middle schools, so diligent hardworking students from underrepresented groups can keep pace with whites and Asians, and compete on an even playing field.
Daniel Friedman is the Edgar Award-nominated author of Don’t Ever Get Old, Don’t Ever Look Back and Riot Most Uncouth. Follow him on Twitter@DanFriedman81