Divided We Learn

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

Stuyvesant High School's acceptance of seven black students for its 895 spots proves that it's time to take action

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Every spring, New York City’s eight specialized high schools release admissions results, and every spring there’s an uproar over the paucity of black and brown students admitted. This year, one of those schools — Stuyvesant High School — only accepted seven black students for its 895 spots.

Five years ago, Stuyvesant admitted five black students.

Elected officials, policymakers and community members are outraged when these numbers are printed in the news, but year after year we engage in vehement debate, with little action to change the status quo: an unequal and inequitable education system.

Currently, the conversation has stagnated around whether scrapping the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) — the sole criterion for admission to the city’s specialized high schools — will lead to different outcomes.

Last June, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed eliminating the entrance exam and expanding the city’s Discovery program — designed to increase the enrollment of low-income students at specialized high schools — to 20 percent of available seats at each school, with adjustments to eligibility criteria to target students attending high-poverty schools. Yet many in New York City oppose this move, saying the test is an unbiased measure for admissions and urging the solution to come in the form of better test prep in schools serving black and brown students.

Tests may not be biased, but the system is.

Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, many of our nation’s schools have become more segregated than they were before that fateful Supreme Court ruling. The educational inequities that continue to exist for black and brown children are, plainly, symptoms of underlying racism against black and brown students that continues to exist. What we’re seeing in New York City is no different from what we see in communities across the country, and until we address the underlying roots of inequitable resources and expectations, we’ll continue to see disparities for black and brown students.

Related: Teaching to the student, not the test

We know that a single high-stakes test as the sole admissions criterion inherently places traditionally underserved students at a disadvantage. Black and brown students are more likely to attend underperforming, under-resourced schools and to be taught by inexperienced teachers. A 2017 study by New York City’s Independent Budget Office found that black and Hispanic children not only start out behind their Asian and white peers on the annual ELA and math exams in third grade, but they continue to slip further and further behind each year.

There are also valid questions about whether this assessment measures merit the way we claim it does. As with many standardized tests, the advantage lies with those who can afford additional test preparation to supplement classroom learning. Black and brown students are less likely than their more affluent peers to be able to afford $167-per-hour Princeton Review SHSAT private tutoring or Kaplan’s $999 prep course. Moreover, without predictive validity testing, it’s unclear whether the SHSAT even provides an accurate measure of a student’s ability to flourish in high school.

However, as long as the SHSAT remains the gatekeeper for the city’s specialized high schools, it’s imperative that communities do a better job of supporting and encouraging black and brown students to take the SHSAT and navigate this rigged system — because there are many more than seven qualified black students who deserve a desk at Stuyvesant.

Some measures have already been taken, such as expanding programs that offer free preparation for the exam. Schools and community leaders also must take it upon themselves to educate parents and students about the city’s specialized high schools and the resources available to students in underrepresented communities.

By both empowering more black and brown students to take the exam, and employing more objective standards in the specialized high school admissions process, the number of black and brown students admitted will rise beyond the single digits.

Yet one change to admissions criteria won’t address the deep-seated, historical inequity that has created a largely separate and unequal school system. The system clearly isn’t working when almost 70 percent of New York City public-school students are black or Latinx, but only 10 percent of black and Latinx students receive offers of admission to the city’s specialized high schools.

The problem is much larger than whether students have access to specialized high schools; the problem is that too many black and brown students cannot compete on an even playing field against their peers. We need to invest in all of New York City’s public schools so that all students master the content knowledge they need to compete at high levels, regardless of whether the goal is to attend a specialized high school.

With a thoughtful, nuanced approach that addresses the root causes of inequity, we can begin to rectify these failures so that neither a child’s ZIP code nor the color of his or her skin is a predictor of opportunity.

This story about admissions to specialized high schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Shavar Jeffries is a civil rights attorney and president of Democrats for Education Reform.

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Shavar Jeffries

Shavar Jeffries is a civil rights attorney and the president of Democrats for Education Reform. See Archive

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The issue is not the SHSAT.

I attended a Brooklyn Tech that was 51% Black and Hispanic. The Mayor and the Chancellor love to gloss over this fact whenever they want to talk about their idiotic policy.

Once upon a time, quality gifted and talented programs existed in EVERY neighborhood. Schools like Phillippa Schuyler were pipelines to the specialized high schools. Then those schools were systematically starved of resources. Couple that with detracking, which has done nothing but trap high performers in mediocrity.

Only 1 in 4 Black kids can do math at grade level. ELA scores are just as bad. The problem is indeed the system. Which the Mayor doesn't have the political courage to really address.

- from Yusef Johnson, Jun 10, 2019