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).