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What New York’s Public Schools Could Learn From Stuyvesant

The class of students who will enter Stuyvesant High School in 2019 include only seven black students. This isn’t particularly unusual; Stuy, which is the most academically selective public school in New York City, typically admits only a handful of black students each year, and every year there are a few op-eds and some social media outrage about the school’s demographics.

This year, however, criticism of the school seems especially intense following a call by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to dismantle the city’s elite specialized high schools and during a period of renewed focus on admissions policies in the wake of the Varsity Blues college corruption scandal. Echoing de Blasio’s 2018 condemnation of the specialized schools, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared Stuyvesant a “system failure” and an “injustice” in a tweet that received over 50,000 likes. New York Times education reporter Eliza Shapiro tweeted that these “grim statistics” would force officials to confront “segregation” in the elite schools, and Atlantic writer Vann Newkirk tweeted that Stuy’s demographics discredit the idea of an American meritocracy.

In fact, New York’s elite public high schools, which de Blasio and Ocasio-Cortez hope to dismantle, have been major drivers of social and economic mobility in New York for decades. If they are successful in destroying these schools, they won’t succeed in improving education for black and Latino students in any material way, but they will destroy a free public school that provides an elite education to hundreds of Asian-Americans from economically disadvantaged backgrounds every year.

The SHSAT is Blind to Identity

Stuyvesant is one of eight “specialized high schools” in New York which admit students on the basis of their scores on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). The test is the sole admissions consideration for admission to the specialized high schools. Stuy has been using exclusively test-based admissions since 1934, and has long been considered one of the best high schools in the U.S.

The multiple choice SHSAT is completely blind to identity. The test form and the computers that grade it don’t know any tester’s race, gender, sexual orientation or nationality. The rich and the poor must face the same examination, and must compete on a level playing field. If there is any bias built into the test itself, its critics have failed to identify it.

Stuyvesant has no development office to exert admissions pressure on behalf of the rich and famous. There are no legacy considerations, and no coaches to bribe. There are no Olivia Jades or Jared Kushners at Stuyvesant. There is also no affirmative action program at Stuy, though de Blasio used his authority as mayor in 2018 to force the expansion of a “discovery program” that provides a pathway into the specialized schools for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who missed the admissions cutoffs. Despite that program, black and Latino enrollment remains extremely low, and Stuy, the most selective of the specialized schools, is nearly 70 percent Asian.

Critics argue that the single test is a poor measure of merit, and that Asians secure an unfair advantage over other groups because they are willing to spend exorbitant amounts of time and money preparing for the SHSAT.  Meanwhile, black and Latino students are disproportionately less likely to take the SHSAT, and many don’t even know about it. However, if Asians have a structural advantage on this test, it doesn’t come from financial resources. Asian-Americans have the highest poverty rates of any racial group in New York, and 44 percent of students at Stuy come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Criticism of Asian Student Achievement is Racist

The widespread contention that Asian students only outperform other groups on the SHSAT because they prepare unreasonably or unfairly for the test is false and racist. The students at Stuyvesant have repeatedly proven that they’re the highest-performing public school students in the city.

Stuy and Bronx Science have the highest median SAT scores in the city for graduating seniors, by a commanding margin. Nearly 40 percent of NYC’s National Merit Semifinalists are Stuyvesant students, which is impressive considering Stuy competes with both elite private schools like the $51,000 per-year Dalton School and the ultra-selective program for extremely gifted students at Hunter College High School. Stuyvesant students are routinely among the semifinalists and finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Competition, and in several recent years, Stuy had more semifinalists than any other school in the country. Stuyvesant also frequently fields national championship chess teams.

At every opportunity, Stuyvesant students compete successfully against the best students other schools have to offer, and repeatedly demonstrate themselves to be top performers in a range of academic tasks. Yet the school’s critics continue to claim that these students’ only distinction is their performance on a single meaningless test that demonstrates nothing but how much money their parents spent on test prep.

If Bill de Blasio had his way, most of these students would be excluded from Stuyvesant. He wants to replace the SHSAT with a new plan that would allocate a set number of seats at Stuy to each middle school at the city. That would mean that low-performing schools which currently have no top SHSAT performers who can make the cut at Stuy would get the same number of seats as gifted schools and heavily-Asian magnet schools that currently send dozens of top test-takers to the specialized schools. The result of this plan would cut the number of Asians at Stuy by more than half and replace them with black and Latino students.

This plan eliminates a citywide competition because de Blasio knows that on any level playing field, in any citywide academic competition, the same students who currently ace the SHSAT would come out on top. And while de Blasio could leave Stuy alone and create a new school that uses his admissions model, he knows students admitted under his proposed rubric would underperform students selected by the SHSAT on every other relevant metric, and that schools using the SHSAT would be considered better than schools built around his conception of racial justice.

The belief that Asian students are one-dimensional test grinds is pernicious and damaging. This stereotype influences admissions officials at schools like Harvard, where Asian applicants’ subjectively-assessed personal qualities are systematically rated as being inferior to those of members of other racial groups.

In truth, there is no objective measure that identifies a different set of students as top performers. There is no evidence that top SHSAT performers are overrated in any sense. There is no reason to believe that the students with the best scores on this test are not New York’s top students. The only objection to the students who come out on top of the SHSAT sort is that most of them are Asian, and if you have a problem with that, then maybe you are the problem and not these brilliant, hardworking children.   

The SHSAT’s Results Are Supported by Data from Other Tests

The SHSAT has a math and a verbal section, and each section has a median score around 200 and a standard deviation between 45 and 50.

Stuyvesant’s cutoff is usually around 560, which is the 96th or 97th percentile. Bronx High School of Science has a cutoff around 520, which is between the 88th and 90th percentile. It admitted 12 black students in 2019. Based on the black enrollment in Bronx Science and the other specialized schools with similar cutoffs, it appears that only about 35 black students in New York scored among the top 10 percent of SHSAT takers and enrolled at specialized high schools. There may be a few more high-scorers who went elsewhere; private schools have been known to poach high-scoring black students with scholarship offers, but the proportion of top black applicants is very low.

Brooklyn Tech has a cutoff around 498, near the 80th percentile, and Brooklyn Latin has a cutoff around 490. These schools both have significantly higher proportions of black admits — 95 of 1825 students admitted to Brooklyn Tech are black, as well as 57 out of 540 students admitted to Brooklyn. That means there’s a significantly higher proportion of black students in the second decile of SHSAT takers, though blacks are still underrepresented at those schools relative to the proportion of black students in the school system overall.

If the SHSAT reached different results or was worse at identifying talented black students than other objective measures of academic performance, then that would be a strong argument in favor of abolishing it. Unfortunately, the disparities reflected in the SHSAT test are mirrored in the results of every other standardized test.

New York’s state assessments of English and Math skills found that 10 percent of black students achieved level 4 proficiency in English, and 12 percent reached level 4 in math. Meanwhile, a third of Asians reached the highest proficiency level in English, and 46 percent reached it in math.

A Brookings Institution analysis of race gaps on the SAT found that only 2,200 black students nationwide scored above a 700 on the SAT’s math section, the 97th percentile overall. By comparison, 48,000 whites and 52,200 Asians scored above a 700. In order to make up for the shortage of black applicants with top scores, highly-selective schools where the median white admitted student scores at the 95th percentile will accept black students scoring at the 85th.

On the LSAT, the admission test for U.S. law schools, only 5 percent of black students score above 160 out of 180, which is the 80th percentile among the overall set of test-takers. Only 29 black students nationwide scored a 170 or higher on the LSAT in 2004, compared to 1,900 white students. The median LSAT score among students at Harvard and Yale is 173, and the lowest-scoring law schools in the top 10 have median LSAT scores of 169. If they didn’t consider race in admissions, the top U.S. law schools would admit about the same number of black students as Stuyvesant.

A Number of Common-Sense Policies Could Improve Black Representation

The reason that Stuyvesant admits very few black students is not that the admission test or the practice of admitting students on the basis of test scores is racist. The reason Stuyvesant admits very few black students is that very few black students can compete head-to-head with the city’s best Asian students on any objective measure of academic performance.

This is not surprising, because the city’s best black public school students have to navigate around a number of structural obstacles to their progress that top white and Asian students do not have to deal with. Tests like the SHSAT expose the extent to which institutions and policymakers are failing top black students. By trying to abolish the measurements that reveal the underlying problems, or by implementing racial preferences to compensate for the shortage of competitive black applicants in the pipeline, we leave these structural obstacles unexamined and unchanged. None of the admissions reforms proposed for the specialized schools address the real issues that are keeping black students from competing.

Improving the number of successful black SHSAT takers doesn’t require untangling all the complex factors behind racial achievement gaps in the U.S. or even in New York City. We merely need to look at a few hundred students per year who are already doing pretty well, and try to help some of them become excellent. However, policymakers, particularly the progressive ones who are in charge of school systems in big cities, prefer to focus attention and resources on students who aren’t doing well, at the expense of the ones who are doing pretty well. This is especially true when the students who are doing pretty well and the students who aren’t are under the charge of the same teachers in so-called “differentiated classrooms.”

Sociology professors Syed Ali and Margaret M. Chin, who are authors of a forthcoming book about Stuyvesant, trace the declining numbers of black and Latino students at the specialized schools to the abolition of academic tracking—the practice of grouping students into classes according to ability—in New York public schools. As recently as the 1980’s, all New York middle and high schools, including many highly segregated ones, had honors tracks that offered accelerated coursework to each school’s top performers. When honors programs were abolished due to progressive complaints about racial disparities in the upper tracks, the top performers in mostly black schools were shifted from honors tracks back into classrooms with other neighborhood students, much to their detriment.

In New York’s public schools, more than a quarter of students are considered “chronically absent,” which means they miss a month or more of school each year. Chronically absent students are disproportionately black and Latino, and high concentrations of chronic absenteeism occur disproportionately in majority-minority schools. In the failing “renewal schools” that Bill de Blasio poured three quarters of a billion dollars into, 36 percent of students were chronically absent. Majority-black schools also have disproportionate discipline problems and problems with disruptive student behavior. Black students who work hard and do everything right still fall behind because they are stuck in classes taught by teachers who are busy managing these issues.

Asian and white students in New York are less likely to share classrooms with disruptive students, and the pace of their classes are not set according to the progress by students who miss a day of school every week. In a finding that should not surprise anyone, researchers have determined that high-performing black and Latino students do better when they are tracked into honors classes that aren’t full of clowns and habitual truants. Stuyvesant had over 300 black students in 1975, and it currently has 24. Its admissions policy has remained the same. The city’s public elementary and middle schools—which are supposed to be preparing black students to compete—have changed.

And while tests like the SHSAT and the SAT are mostly reasoning tests, they require certain math and language skills, and lacking a proper educational foundation is a huge disadvantage. Duke University runs a Talent Identification Program (TIP) which administers the SAT and ACT to seventh graders who have scored above the 95th percentile on a state standardized test or an IQ test. Despite the fact that the SAT is taken in eleventh grade by students with a wide range of abilities and the TIP students are all high achievers, the seventh graders have a lower score curve.

The 90th percentile for TIP users is an 1150 on the SAT, which is a 74th percentile score for high school juniors and seniors. A 99th percentile SAT score for TIP students is a 1350, which is a 91st percentile score for eleventh graders. In other words, being four years behind the larger cohort in math and English instruction causes the TIP students to almost disappear from the top decile of SAT takers, even though they’re all gifted. A similar phenomenon might explain the racial score gaps on SHSAT and on college admissions tests if many talented black and Latino students are stuck in slow moving classrooms that are functionally years behind the accelerated courses students are taking in wealthy suburban districts, gifted programs and elite private schools.

Beyond that, the city needs to be more proactive about making sure talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t slip through various cracks in the ramshackle public education system. Ten percent of black students are scoring in the highest category on state achievement tests. That’s the starting line, not the finish, but the school system needs to make sure these kids show up to the race.

The New York Post reported on a student named Sebastian Acevedo, who was told by a guidance counselor at his private Catholic middle school that it was impossible for him to get into Stuyvesant. After his parents—his mother is a clerical worker and his father is a supermarket manager—spent $5,000 on test prep, Sebastian got into Stuy, one of only 33 Latino students citywide to make the cut.

The fact that Sebastian was able to dramatically improve his score with a few months of prep means that there were concepts on the test that he was able to quickly master, but that he hadn’t been taught in his middle school classes. It’s a huge problem that this student hadn’t been identified as gifted previously, and provided with appropriate resources, and it’s unconscionable that he was discouraged from taking the admissions tests for the specialized schools. There may be many other talented students who give up after being discouraged by school officials, or who don’t know how to find outside resources to help compensate for the deficiencies in their schools’ instruction.

If any of those students aren’t being encouraged to take the SHSAT, or are not getting the free test prep resources the city provides, then that needs to be corrected. In the same way that students with disabilities are entitled to individual education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, high-performing students need to be assigned to counselors who keep track of their progress and help them navigate the school system’s complicated bureaucracy to get the resources they need to thrive and compete for admissions, both at the specialized exam schools and at the dozens of selective NYC public high schools that use other screening methods for admission.

Public schools in New York and around the country are not organized around the purpose of preparing their best students to participate in competitive admissions processes. That does not discredit competitive admissions; it discredits public schools. And it is not Stuyvesant or the SHSAT that need reforms, but rather, the public elementary and middle schools that are failing to cultivate black and Latino talent.

Daniel Friedman is the Edgar Award-nominated author of Don’t Ever Get OldDon’t Ever Look Back and Riot Most Uncouth. Follow him on Twitter 

Feature photo by Jim Henderson.


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