Posted on June 24, 2014

Elite, Separate, Unequal

Richard D. Kahlenberg, New York Times, June 23, 2014

New York City’s elite public high schools were always meant to provide a quintessentially American blend of academic excellence and democratic accessibility. {snip}

“You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school–no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in 2012. But this year, only 5 percent of seats at those eight schools were offered to black students and 7 percent to Latinos, in a city where the public schools are 70 percent black and Latino. At Stuyvesant High School, just 3 percent of offered seats this year went to black and Latino students.

When the number of black and Latino students admitted to a public school is a tiny fraction of their share of the general population, it raises red flags about the fairness of the admissions system.

New York City’s eight selective public high schools base admissions on a single two-and-a-half-hour assessment–the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test–a practice that is unusual among other large public school systems in the nation. The N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund, along with other groups, has filed a federal civil rights complaint against this arrangement.

In his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio called for diversifying these schools. His administration recently endorsed proposed state legislation that would broaden the criteria for admissions to the city’s three original specialized high schools–Stuyvesant, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School–where the use of the test is mandated by state law, to also include factors such as a student’s grade point average, state exam scores and attendance. At the five other selective schools, Mr. de Blasio has the power to change the criteria without legislation.

The proposed law moves in the right direction, but simply adding grades to test scores may not do much to promote equity. And giving students credit for attendance sounds a bit like the old joke that 80 percent of success is showing up.

Is there a way to capture a more meaningful notion of merit without throwing out the test–a system that rewards hard work and talent and also recognizes the extra hurdles some students face?

Five years ago I worked with Chicago public school officials to create a program for their selective and magnet schools. {snip}

Under the policy we developed, 30 percent of students are admitted to Chicago’s highly selective high schools (such as Walter Payton College Prep) based strictly on the traditional criteria of grades and test scores. The remaining seats are allocated to the highest-scoring students from four different socioeconomic tiers, under the premise that students in the poorest parts of the city who score modestly lower on standardized tests have a lot to offer, given the obstacles they’ve had to overcome.


The policy has resulted in far more racial and ethnic diversity than in New York City’s elite public schools. At Walter Payton, 21 percent of students are black and 25 percent are Latino. Some critics worry that these numbers are still inadequate in a public school system where 41 percent of students are black and 45 percent Latino. {snip}

Other critics argue that the system tilts too far in favor of children from low-income neighborhoods. But the plan has proved to be the basis for a stable and enduring compromise. Fears that students from low-income areas would fail have not come to pass, and Chicago’s top selective schools still rank as the top three in the state.

{snip} Isn’t it time for New York City’s top schools to recognize that excellence can be found among students of all racial and economic backgrounds?