New York City has the largest public school system in the world. Approximately 1.1 million students are enrolled across the five boroughs in schools that include some of the best (and worst) examples of public education in the country. The undisputed crown jewels of this system are the city’s elite, selective high schools. Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech… these are the places that have long been a goal for every parent who raises a child in New York and gives them a public education.
This week, eighth grade students in New York City found out if they’d won a spot in the school of their choice. Stuyvesant High School—probably the most selective of them all—welcomed almost a thousand new students. And, as the New York Times reports, the racial disparity among the students admitted is startling: “Seven black students have been offered a chance to start classes at Stuyvesant High School in September, two fewer than received offers last year. For Hispanics, the number has dropped to 21 from 24… of the 28,000 students citywide who took the Specialized High School Admissions Test, 5,701 of them were offered seats. Although 70 percent of the city’s public school students are black and Hispanic, blacks were offered 5 percent of the overall seats and Hispanics 7 percent — the same as a year ago. Asians were offered 53 percent of the seats, compared with 50 percent a year ago; whites were offered 26 percent of seats, compared with 24 percent a year ago.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference in which he called for the city’s schools to reflect the diversity of the city itself, but he fell short of proposing any plan on how to do so. Instead the mayor seemed optimistic that there would be some way of changing the test-only admittance policy to these schools that has been in place since 1971, and been protested as being racially discriminatory since, um, 1971. Students who wish to attend one of these high schools (including De Blasio’s son, Dante, who attends Brooklyn Tech), must take the SHSAT, a standardized test akin to the SAT in that it’s divided into verbal and math sections, and also because of the number of tutoring hours that prospective test-takers are forced into by perhaps overzealous parents. Another thing the SAT has in common with the SHSAT is that both have long been thought to be biased toward the students who receive extracurricular test prep, as well as toward those who benefit from already being in top school environments prior to taking the tests. These things are undoubtedly true. And also true is the reality that in this city, the students most likely to be receiving tutoring or attending the best elementary and middle schools are those that belong to privileged socio-economic classes, and are white or Asian. Year after year, the results of the SHSAT bear this out, and year after year, black and Latino students are funneled into mediocre or even failing high schools.
But is the answer to get rid of the SHSAT? Or to use it, but only as one of several other criteria? Should a student’s attendance record factor into it? His sixth grade report card? Her seventh grade extracurricular activities? Should there be a certain number of slots reserved for black and Latino students? Or even white students? After all, the percentage of Asian students attending these selective schools is wildly disproportionate to the percentage of Asian students within the system at large. Or should we focus instead on improving the elementary and middle school educations for all the city’s students, while also working to make sure that the high schools that are full of a majority of black and Latino students give these students an education of which this city can be proud?
The argument against the SHSAT is nothing more than a straw man. The real problem begins far earlier than eighth grade for most of these students. And to de Blasio’s credit, he is working hard to address the inequalities that many of this city’s students face by guaranteeing universal pre-k for everyone. However, getting kids into school at a young age is only a first step. Making sure that those schools are giving those children a quality education is the next one. Because right now, not only is getting rid of the SHSAT (which, by the way, would have to go through Albany, just like the universal pre-k plan has had to do) nothing more than a pipe dream, it’s also not going to solve the real problem, which isn’t that more black and Latino students weren’t admitted to the elite high schools, it’s that the ones they will attend are almost guaranteed to fail them. As did the middle and elementary schools they attended before. That’s the real scandal. That’s the real injustice.
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