Why Aren’t More Girls Getting Into the City’s Elite High Schools?

Brooklyn Tech at its most intimidating.
  • c/o nytimes.com
  • Brooklyn Tech at its most intimidating.

The New York Times published a somewhat handwringing article this past weekend about the fact that far fewer girls than boys are winning spots in the city’s elite public high schools. As the Times notes, “girls have outshined boys in high school for years, amassing more A’s, earning more diplomas and gliding more readily into college, where they rack up more degrees — whether at the bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral levels.” So then why aren’t they getting more spots in prestigious schools like Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech? Why do boys outnumber girls in these schools by a ratio of 3:2? What does it all mean?

Maybe nothing. It might mean absolutely nothing. As the Times and many of the experts it talks to point out, admission into these highly competitive schools is based purely on a written test and doesn’t take any other factors into account other than the test scores. Many of New York’s other selective high schools—like Edward R. Murrow and Millenium—also evaluate prospective students using interviews and auditions, and these schools actually have a solid majority of female students. This has led some people to charge that sexism is at play and that the schools which rely solely on testing for admission should introduce other criteria in order to diversify the student bodies. Of course, as the Times points out, the make-up of the student populations at these schools has been a hot-button issue for a few years now with racial diversity being the main “combustible issue” because of the minimal representation of black and Latino students.

And, much like in the race-based argument, the divide between people who think the selective high schools are sexist basically comes down to what people think is really “fair.” There are the people who think that the only truly “fair” thing is to evaluate students from an ostensibly blind test and accept those who get a certain score. And then there are the people who think that no standardized test can ever be truly “fair” because nobody starts off from the same place and that, if the city wanted to be truly “fair,” other factors would be weighted. The problem is that both of these positions have a great deal of validity and neither are right nor wrong. It’s also easy to point out to the people that don’t think the tests are fair, that there are many other excellent public high schools in the city, which do consider things besides test scores and that those schools are the ones with a majority of female students.

But the real question might not be whether or not girls can get into a school like Brooklyn Tech, but whether or not they even want to go? The Times spoke with several people who worry that the reasons that girls are not interested in going to the math & science-based high schools is because girls don’t feel like they can do well in those subjects, which would certainly be a worrisome thing, if true. However, the real reasons could easily be based on many other factors including the fact that there are actually more options for excellent public high schools than ever before. It wasn’t so long ago that public school students in New York City felt that the only worthwhile high schools were Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, or Brooklyn Tech. Now, there is an abundance of options and it is apparent that New York public schools students (a thing of which there is also an abundance) are taking advantage of that and do not feel the need to go to a school to which they would need to commute over an hour each way. While there is certainly cause for concern over the fact that there isn’t more diversity in some of the city’s elite schools, the overall trend of students having more options than ever before shouldn’t be ignored. It is, on balance, a positive development which should be celebrated and which can, long-term, only strengthen the city’s public school system.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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