By Rachel M. Kleinman & Damon T. Hewitt
Each year, nearly 30,000 middle school students compete for the chance to attend one of the New York City’s prestigious “Specialized High Schools,” including Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. Under the current admissions policy, the only factor considered is a student’s score on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (“SHSAT”) — a 2.5 hour multiple choice exam. There is no “passing score”; the only thing that matters is how high a student scores compared others who take the test the same year.
Experts agree that using any test as the only factor to make a high stakes decision is bad educational policy. But this process is even worse because the NYC Department of Education admits that it has never analyzed the SHSAT to determine whether it is a valid tool; there is no proof that the test accurately assesses academic merit or predicts future success. In this way, the policy actually ignores merit because students get no credit for their hard work, grades or other factors. As a result, they are taught that learning doesn’t matter – only the test matters.
Moreover, the policy is also discriminatory. For many years, African-American and Latino students have been woefully under-represented at these schools; and the problem has only gotten worse over the last decade. For example, of the 967 eighth-graders offered admission to Stuyvesant for the 2012-13 school year, just 19 (2%) are African American and only 32 (3.3%) are Latino. To bring this closer to home, it is safe to say that if a total of only 51 Black and Latino students from the entire city were admitted to Stuyvesant this year, the vast majority of Black and Latino students living in Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant, or attending school in Community School Districts 13, 16, and 17 were not afforded the opportunity of attending the school.
We know there is a better way. Other elite high schools, along with most colleges and universities, consider other important factors such as grades, sustained academic commitment, teacher recommendations and geographic diversity. But none of those factors matter under the New York policy.
There can be no question that in communities like South Brooklyn and others throughout the city there are many qualified Black and Latino students who could thrive at the Specialized High Schools but whose true merit is simply not being recognized by this single unvalidated test, and who are therefore being denied life-changing opportunities.
The admissions policy for the Specialized High Schools has been in place for decades and its use has been criticized by progressive education advocates for just as long. But change may now be on the horizon. In September a broad coalition of over a dozen civil rights groups and community-based organizations — including the Brooklyn Movement Center, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, LatinoJustice-PRLDEF and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College — filed a federal civil rights complaint challenging the admissions policy and the resulting racial disparities. A ground swell of support has emerged from elected officials and education experts. And the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently opened an official investigation into the matter.
The federal investigation is good news for all New York City students. It means that we may soon see a day where all students have a fair chance to gain admission to the city’ best schools and it would mark an important win for community-based advocates pursuing a progressive reform agenda.
Rachel M. Kleinman is the Assistant Counsel of the Education Group, and Damon T. Hewitt is the Director of the Education Practice at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF).