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OPINION: Luck or merit? The admissions argument that won’t go away

Stuyvesant High School, the SAT 'adversity score' and beyond

When school is too easy: How high schools are failing their students

It happens all the time: You work hard all of your young life to achieve admission to an elite educational institution with very high standards, and when you finally get there, you are welcomed with some version of, “How lucky you are to be here! Think of all the people like you who didn’t have this chance.”

The trouble is, some groups feel luckier than others, while some firmly believe that they’ve earned the privilege. So how do we make admissions equally lucky for everybody?

Take, for example, the recent battles over New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, which for years has struggled with questions of diversity and equity. Black students made up less than 1 percent of the class initially admitted to Stuyvesant for the fall of 2019, while Hispanic students made up just under 4 percent. By contrast, Asian-American students accounted for 66 percent of the new class, and white students made up 22 percent.

Related: OPINION: ‘Tests may not be biased, but the system is’

It is worth remembering that only 16 percent of students in the New York City schools are Asian American, while black and Hispanic students together represent well over half of the city’s public-school population. So presumably the proportions of students passing the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) — if it were equitable and unbiased — would more closely reflect those proportions.

Not many observers would dispute that K-8 schools in New York City have room for improvement, and it’s clear that some neighborhoods have a better track record of sending kids to selective public schools. Could it be that this track record is more a reflection of their focus on the entrance exam than of their truly being better at preparing young people for secondary and postsecondary education?

What Stuyvesant’s entering class really reflects is the extent to which some of these students are prepared for the SHSAT by schools and parents who have the wherewithal to do so, while others don’t get the same head start. This is why there is currently a political tug of war in New York over a proposal to do away with the SHSAT.

Observers like Nicholas Lemann, Bill Bowen, Derek Bok and others have demonstrated that tests used as gateways for admission are biased in ways that privilege certain groups. Traditionally, that group has been white males. In the case of New York City’s specialized schools, however, the groups have been second- or third-generation immigrants who have seen education as the key to assimilation.

For instance, the earliest of the specialized high schools “belonged” to white boys in the 1930s and 1940s. Girls were not allowed. Half a century ago, their enrollments had shifted to become majority Jewish; any non-white students who did get in were underrepresented and were supposed to feel lucky to be there. (Maybe it’s telling that the entrance exams were introduced in 1972, as affirmative action took hold.)

Related: OPINION: From one white parent to another: Don’t pick schools because they’re selective and mostly white

Over the years, as the demographics have evolved, one of these once-underrepresented groups has become the group most likely to protest that equity is no longer an issue, that the few black and Hispanic students are exceptional in having passed the test, and that they are lucky to have been admitted.

So far this may all sound like New York City’s problem. The sad truth, though, is that these same tensions have become nearly universal in higher education — to the extent that they are now reshaping K-12 education as well. Nationally, according to one recent analysis, about 7-9 percent of undergraduates at elite institutions are black and 13-15 percent are Hispanic, compared with 15 and 22 percent, respectively, in the overall college-aged population.

This is not because black and Hispanic students are inherently unable to meet tough coursework and graduation requirements. Rather, it happens because some families and schools both know how to give their children a laser-focused preparation for entrance to the best colleges and have the resources to do so, while others simply don’t. And the families who don’t tend to be those from groups and communities that have systematically suffered from institutional racism over many generations in the United States.

The new environmental context dashboard created by the College Board for the SAT — the so-called “adversity score” that has received so much attention in recent press — clearly represents one attempt to recognize and compensate for both the implicit bias of standardized tests and the larger context of inequity from which so many of these students come.

While it is a step in the right direction to recognize one shortcoming of the SAT and attempt to rectify it, the net effect is still that one group holds power and must magnanimously share it with another group. The recipient is therefore once again “lucky” to receive this largesse.

It’s past time to stop telling young people of color — especially black and Latinx young people — that their arrival in places of privilege is a matter of luck.

Related: STUDENT VOICES: NYC’s schools chief Richard Carranza promised us he’ll keep pushing for racial integration

If we are ever to establish a true meritocracy through education, we must stop allowing anyone to game the system, as bitter a pill as that may be. The recent “Varsity Blues” scandal suggests our communal disgust with wealthy people who have paid for unqualified children to get into good colleges, but somehow we have become far less squeamish about the notion that better-resourced families and communities should have leverage to prepare their talented young people while other families and communities do not.

Equity relies on an insistence that opportunity be equally distributed. When there is clear evidence of advantage and disadvantage, we should be unafraid of making the necessary adjustments. Certainly luck, talent and hard work will always matter, but in a properly functioning system, success would be more about the last two than the first.

If everyone had equal access to test prep, coaching, counseling, mentoring, study groups, enriched curricula, advanced classes and all of the other forms of built-in advantage that pave the way for students to enter elite high schools and colleges, merit would truly allow young people to make their own luck.

This story about luck and merit in the admissions process was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Stephanie Hull is the president and CEO of  Girls Inc. in New York City, former executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former head of the Brearley School.

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Stephanie Hull is president and CEO of Girls Inc. in New York City, former executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Woodrow Wilson… See Archive

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