Preserving Equity, Retaining Talent: Why Bill de Blasio is Wrong on the SHSAT

When in doubt, leave it to Bill de Blasio to ruin a weekend.

Writing for the education website Chalkbeat on Saturday afternoon, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined plans to change admissions policies for the city’s eight Specialized High Schools, which typically rank among the best high schools in New York, and the United States as a whole.

Currently, admissions to the schools is based solely on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), administered citywide to 8th and 9th graders hoping to enter the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Latin School, Brooklyn Technical High School, High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College, High School for American Studies at Lehman College, Queens High School for Sciences at York College, Staten Island Technical High School, and Stuyvesant High School.

The SHSAT –– which has been administered since the 1970s for the three “legacy” Specialized High Schools (Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science) –– and was later expanded to the other five, including my alma mater, Staten Island Technical High School, is rigorous and deeply challenging. The exam tests students’ knowledge ability to understand and apply concepts in critical reading and the core principles of mathematics, making it not too dissimilar from the SAT, GMAT, LSAT, and other major academic standardized tests in its basic construction.

The SHSAT is not an easy exam to pass ––  of the 28,300 students who took the exam last year, only 5,730 received offers. These statistics have inspired an entire industry of test-preparation materials and courses designed to help students and families navigate the exam and get ahead on the quest to obtain the highest-quality public education programs available in New York.

Yet, the system is not without its critics. For years, the SHSAT has been accused of racist admissions policies that systematically target African-American and Latino students, making the exam, in Mayor de Blasio’s words “a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.” In the past, the city had sought to address the problem through a variety of programs designed to offer free test-prep and expand access to the Specialized High Schools in underserved communities across the city.

However, in the Mayor’s view, these have nonetheless failed to adequately expand expand diversity in the City’s top schools. According to the New York Times, the preponderance of Specialized High School students (52%) are Asian-American, despite being only 16% of public high school students city-wide, while African-American and Latino students, who make up nearly 2/3s of New York’s public school students, occupy only 9% of all seats at the SHSAT-required schools.

Thus, to address what he views as a “monumental injustice,” Mayor de Blasio has announced plans to reserve 20% of all places at all Specialized High Schools for students from “economically disadvantaged” communities who have successfully completed the City’s Discovery program and “just missed” the test-cutoff. Yet, for Mayor de Blasio, clearly not all “economically disadvantaged” communities are created equal, and thus eligible for his administration’s latest misguided foray into social engineering.

Almost half of Specialized High School students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and Asian-American families have the highest poverty rates of any racial group in New York City (29%). Yet, Mayor de Blasio’s plan ignores these challenges, and nonetheless marshals on with its narrow-minded focus on creating a shadow admissions process through the explicit use of race-based criteria.

But alas, the Mayor’s plans are greater than that still. At the core of De Blasio’s vision is a long-term proposal, which would require State Legislative approval, to phase out the Specialized High School Exam entirely and replace Specialized High School admissions with a criteria that guarantees seats at Specialized High Schools to the top 7% of all students at each of the city’s middle schools, using a “composite score” of GPA and state test results.

However this plan is just as unworkable and inequitable as the intermediate solution that the Mayor has proposed to roll out in September 2019. Indeed, in her passionate defense of the SHSAT, Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens), a Stuyvesant High School graduate, argued that “adding admissions criteria such things as a grade point average, state exam scores and attendance — wouldn’t necessarily yield better educational outcomes.” Nor, as Meng went on to say, is there any substantive evidence that moving away from the SHSAT to include other admissions factors would generate greater ethnic diversity or reduce bias. Instead, it would introduce more arbitrary factors into the process and open the door to a reduction in academic standards while carrying over the city’s ineffective and unfair policies for Middle School zoning into high school decisions, thus outright denying opportunities to students from better-performing Middle School. To add insult to injury, relying on NY standardized tests as part of the admissions criteria is utterly wrongheaded. Not only are the state tests far less academically rigorous and appropriate for admitting students to a college-preparatory curriculum, they are also subjected to almost constant changes in format and difficulty level, and should they be used, would likely complicate admissions decisions for students who recently relocated to NYC from other states.

Simply put, while de Blasio hopes to create more opportunities for Black and Hispanic students as well as Bronx residents under this proposal, in practice it can only amount to a problem in search of a solution. Academic standards across the city’s Middle Schools are far from uniform, and not all students who perform at the top of their Middle School classes are necessarily well-prepared to succeed in a challenging High School environment. Moreover, de Blasio’s solution would also reduce the number of spots at Specialized High Schools which are available to students at religious and independent high schools to between 5-10%, where it appears the academicalwould compete among themselves in a random lottery process. Effectively disenfranchising hundreds of families from institutions which are hotbed of diversity, and often some of the most effective instillers of academic rigor in their students from across the city from opportunities to which they are entitled as the children of NY taxpayers is not simply insulting –– it is deeply prejudicial and patently unjust.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in his proposal as well as his general outlook towards Specialized High Schools, Mayor de Blasio is guilty of a deeply inaccurate and irresponsible portrayal of venerable institutions. As a student at Staten Island Tech from 2011-2015, I experienced a level of extraordinary socio-economic, ideological, and geographic diversity as part of a student body that overwhelmingly consisted of immigrants and the children of immigrants. We were there because we wanted to be there, and because we knew were ready to work hard to succeed.

Over my four years at Tech, I gained extraordinary experience in cultural sensitivity, understanding and empathy –– as well as an understanding that diversity does not begin or end with measuring the melanin levels in one’s skin or checking off a box on a Census form. Diversity is an ongoing conversation that respects and values between individuals on their own merits in the name of values and basic decency –– not ideological grandstanding.

At Tech, I learned what it meant to succeed and push oneself in a challenging environment that is truly not for every student. AP Courses are not merely “offered” or “encouraged” at Specialized High Schools –– they are outright mandated, for better or for worse, from the first day of 9th grade. Teachers’ expectations are high and students stress about balancing grades and extra-circulars in the rat-race to “win” the college admissions game in a way that is simply unseen in almost all other urban schools.

Students are expected to learn and succeed independently, while a premium base-knowledge of math, science, and English is almost taken for granted. At Tech, I also saw what these challenges meant for a small group of students who simply found themselves uncomfortable and unable to succeed in such an environment –– although they were clearly able to successfully study and pass the SHSAT and likely would have been at the top of their game at virtually any other High School in the city. Most of these students either moved to other high schools early on, and if they did stay on, were usually socially and academically isolated, lacking the motivation or relevant support to stay on in an environment that was simply not a good fit for them.

Those of us who did get on with things and persevere in spite of the challenges managed to do quite well. Because of my Tech education, I was able to matriculate to a top-15 university with a substantial scholarship, and the college credits I earned while at Tech made it possible for me to graduate one year ahead of schedule. Moreover, throughout my time at Rice, when I found myself in class with peers who had graduated from top private and boarding schools as well as elite public schools in wealthy, suburban school districts, I felt fully capable of holding my own academically. Even more than that, my very ability to express my thoughts articulately in writing is the product of the superhuman effort of a few extraordinary teachers who once encouraged a pugnacious and outspoken teenager to take pen to paper and fall in love with what I am doing at this very moment, writing this.

I stand as a Specialized High School graduate, along with thousands of others, in favor of the SHSAT, explicitly because I am convinced is the only fair and decent way to open the door to a stellar education for the gifted young of this city. But more than anything, at this moment, I am saddened for those children and their families. Not only for those for whom one multiple-choice question meant a world of difference or who for whatever reason are suffering because of our current system. I am saddened because in a city with as much potential as this one, it simply should not be this difficult and this competitive to get a high-quality public High School education. Families should not have to face the burdens of ineffective and unsafe Middle Schools that fail to adequately prepare their children for success in high school. Nor should they have to endure logistical hurdles in order to find a place for their child in the educational environment that is right for them – whether it is a gifted program at another school or one that puts them on a particular professional track. These families cannot afford non-solutions that are patronizing, non-sensical, and outright intellectually dishonest –– they require true leadership and insight, which are unfortunately the very things the Mayor has shown himself unable to provide.

About the Author
As a student, writer, political activist, and proud son of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants to the United States, I draw on my values and experiences to articulate opinions and analyses on the ideas and events that make the world interesting.