New report challenges merit of single-test admission for specialized high schools

Stephon Johnson | 10/31/2013, 1:15 p.m.

A new joint report by the Community Service Society (CSS) and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) suggests that the New York City Department of Education find a new approach to admitting students in specialized high schools.

The policy blueprint, titled “The Meaning of Merit,” points out that the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) is an “arbitrary” and “unfair” measure to judge students’ academic qualifications for schools like Stuyvesant High Schools, Brooklyn Technical High School and the Bronx High School of Science.

CSS and LDF’s report recommends that the DOE consider middle school grades, class rank (or taking the top percentage rank from each middle school), statewide exams and teacher recommendation on top of the SHSAT. But that wasn’t before the report attacked the test itself, citing lack of accessibility to proper test preparation for many children of color and a lack of equal opportunity for all public school students.

“The SHSAT is not aligned to the curriculum students are expected to learn in middle school, nor is it aligned to expectations for performance in specialized high schools. In fact, NYCDOE officials admit that the DOE has never studied the SHSAT to determine whether it predicts success in the specialized high schools. To date, the NYCDOE has failed to produce any evidence at all on predictive validity,” the report stated.

The LDF filed a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of the CSS and 10 other community groups alleging that the admissions policy of specialized high schools violates federal law.

As for the report, the LDF and CSS also called out the DOE for misusing its own test and not having a consistent, standard measure and cutoff point for admittance into specialized high schools.

“The SHSAT does not have a standard cut off score that guarantees admission,” read the report. “Instead, the NYCDOE’s reliance on rank-order scores means the score needed to gain admission to any specialized high school can change every year. So a score that yields admissions offer this year may lead to denial of admission the following year, and vice versa.”

As the report notes, 963 students were offered admission to Stuyvesant High School for the 2013-14 school year. Out of that group, only nine were Black and 24 Latino. Over 26,700 eighth-grade students took the SHSAT in the fall of 2012, with Black and Latino students making up 12,000 of the test-takers. Six-hundred Black and Latino students were offered admissions to any of the specialized high schools despite outnumbering white test-takers almost three to one. Twice as many white students received offers.

David Jones, president and CEO of CSS, told the AmNews how the report came together.

“I think it’s been of concern, and people have been on it for a long time,” said Jones. “I think the report from about a year and half ago about nine African-Americans in Stuyvesant’s new class helped us come together because of the gross disparities.”

In the 2012-2013 school year, 6 percent of all students enrolled in all specialized high schools overall were Black and 7 percent Latino. When compared to high schools of similar caliber, the top three specialized high schools (Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant) have dropped the ball demographically. Currently, 3 percent of Stuyvesant students are Black and Latino (with Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech doing slightly better at 10 percent and 17 percent respectively).

Other top schools have achieved much better diversity and used various methods of admitting students. Twenty-seven percent of the students at Millennium High School in Manhattan are Black and Latino, 38 percent of students at Beacon High School in Manhattan are Black and Latino, 52 percent of students at the California Academy of Math and Science in Carson, Calif., are Black and Latino and 76 percent of students at School of Science and Engineering in Dallas, Texas, are Black and Latino.

Many of those schools are ranked on the same U.S. News & World Report as Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant as some of the best in the country. Some of those schools are ranked higher on the list. These schools, according to the report, use any combination of grades, interviews, standardized test scores, recommendations, entrance exams (with an essay portion) and even class attendance.

Errol Cockfield, a Brooklyn Tech graduate (class of 1991) and former press secretary to former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and his successor David Paterson, spoke with the AmNews about his experiences prepping for the exam.

I think when I was young I knew that there was a test I needed to take, and I needed to do well in order to get into one of the specialized schools,” Cockfield said. “At the time, I felt pressure to do well on that exam. But I think there’s a very well-documented disconnect between standardized testing and a true assessment of the talent of students, especially in communities of color, and I think it’s worthwhile to re-examine whether not a single test makes sense for entry.”

Education has found its way into the current New York City mayoral race, but much of the discussion focused on charter schools. However, Democratic nominee Bill de Blasio told the New York Daily News’ editorial board that tests shouldn’t be the only unit of measurement for admitting a student into a specialized high school.

“These schools are the academies for the next generation of leadership in all sectors of the city, and they have to reflect the city better,” de Blasio told their editorial board. While the AmNews was unsuccessful in contacting Republican nominee Joe Lhota for comment on the study, he has already gone on record as saying that factoring more than just the test into admission would lower the quality of students in the school.

Cockfield told the AmNews that resources play a vital tool in who does well on the SHSAT and that de Blasio—the favorite to be elected for mayor on Nov. 5—holds the key to some of the progress on the issue.

Often, children of color don’t benefit from the kind of resources that are available to prepare for these tests that other communities have to prepare for these tests,” said Cockfield. “And that puts them at an unfair disadvantage when it’s the only measurement tool to get into these schools.”

“I think there’s gonna be a new mayor who’s gonna be coming in with a head of steam and has some political capital to spend, and that’s gonna have an impact,” continued Cockfield. “He’ll have the ability to spend some of that capital on the education issue specifically. That’s gonna have an impact in the dialogue.”

Jones agreed with Cockfield regarding access and resources.

“What this has done is give upper middle class and parents a distinct advantage when you look at other factors in admissions,” Jones said. “Look around the country. You can find schools—some of them are higher ranked than our schools—that factor grades, teachers, recommendation, class rank. This is not only for Blacks and Latinos. If I’m a poor immigrant kid of any race, how are they gonna come up with $2,500 to take a test prep? This is a public school system. You can’t have this type of inequality buildup.”