Specialized high school alums rally in favor of exam

Stephon Johnson | 12/18/2014, 4:19 p.m.
The New York City Specialized High Schools Admissions Test debate heated up when alums of several schools rallied in front ...

The New York City Specialized High Schools Admissions Test debate heated up when alums of several schools rallied in front of City Hall last Thursday.

Alums from the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical School and Stuyvesant High School, along with elected officials, are pushing back against plans introduced by Mayor Bill de Blasio to end the test-only admissions process.

“Our interest here is to preserve the quality of these schools,” said Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation President Larry Cary to reporters outside of City Hall. “We believe in diversity, fairness and merit. We don’t believe those three values are in conflict with each other.”

A diverse group—the type of diversity that the de Blasio administration wants to see at places such as Bronx Science—pushed back against taking away the exam, calling it the only objective way of gaining admittance to one of their schools. The alums suggested the city invest more in elementary and middle schools in underprivileged areas and provide test prep beginning in seventh grade. They also suggested letting parents know as soon as possible of the test’s existence and not waiting until the last minute.

Individuals such as New York City Council Member Peter Koo believe that for those who do not speak English very well or speak it as a second language, the exam is the best way to high achievement and the first step toward an elite college or university. Koo called the test fair, stating, “It’s no favoritism, no bias and no politics.”

Cary fears that favoritism, bias and politics will turn specialized high schools into places for the societal elite and not the academic elite. (According to InsideSchools.org, 64 percent of Brooklyn Tech students are eligible for free lunch.) When asked if the specialized high school admissions process shouldn’t mirror the ones for colleges and universities, Cary did not mince words.

“Because it will then be all about how much money you have, how much political influence you have,” Cary said. “And the best way to get into Harvard, Princeton or Yale today is to become a [expletive] movie star ... and we’re not interested in that.”

In June, Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, along with de Blasio, backed a bill that would require specialized high schools to use more than one test score for admissions in an attempt to diversify the student body. For the past several years, the debate over the merit of the exam has exploded, leading to a report by the Community Service Society and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 2013 calling for a non-test-based admission standard.

The report, titled “The Meaning of Merit,” called the SHSAT an “arbitrary” and “unfair” measure to judge students academic qualifications and recommended that the DOE consider middle school grades, class rank (or taking the top percentage rank from each middle school), statewide exams and teacher recommendation in addition to the SHSAT. But the report also attacked the test itself.

“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,” read the report. “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.”

But to former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, the test is the one true way for people of all backgrounds to get into specialized high schools without any bias. He also feels the outlook of the current administration is shortsighted when it comes to the SHSAT.

“The City Council wants a quick solution ... to change the test and increase numbers right away,” said Benjamin when speaking with the AmNews. “That doesn’t help anyone.”

Benjamin also doesn’t trust certain elected officials, who he feels don’t really have the best interest of the people at heart. He believes that the non-test-based admissions approach is a ploy to curtail the number of Asian students at specialized high schools. According to InsideSchools.org, Asian students make up 62 percent of Bronx Science students, 73 percent of Stuyvesant students and 61 percent of Brooklyn Tech students. Benjamin believes the bill is an attempt to increase the number of white students in those schools.

“I just don’t trust them,” said Benjamin. “I always look cross-eyed whenever they propose something. It makes me think, why are they interested in our welfare suddenly?”