Forget the subtle changes in the weather at this time of year, there’s really only one guaranteed way to know that spring is finally here: Reports are released about the students accepted at New York’s elite, test-based high schools, and it’s revealed that, once again, only a small percentage of the city’s black and Latino students will be attending. The New York City public school system has 405 public high schools, but like much else in this city, taken as a whole, these schools are indicative of the type of inequality that runs rampant here. Some of the lower performing high schools have 4-year graduation rates that hover at around 40% with only a tiny fraction of the students going on to attend college or technical school, while others have 100% graduation rates and with many students going on to attend Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.
And because perhaps no other public high school in this city is as celebrated as Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, the scrutiny it (along with the seven other test-based specialized high schools) face with regards to its lack of racial diversity is intense. This year, the specialized high school’s incoming freshman class will contain 5% black students and 7% Latino students, despite the fact that blacks and Latinos make up approximately 70% of the public school student population as a whole. As a comparison, 52% of the class will be Asian and 28% will be white, even though both groups together comprise just under 30% of the public school population. On the surface of things, at least, this seems to be a huge problem, one that Mayor de Blasio and School Chancellor Fariña are trying to change by changing the criteria for admission to these schools, with de Blasio saying last year, “We cannot have a dynamic where some of our greatest educational options are only available to people from certain backgrounds.”
Since its founding over a century ago, Stuyvesant has served as a beacon for many New York families within the public school system, a place where children who came from all backgrounds would have the opportunity for an excellent education without a huge price tag. Stuyvesant’s elite status was obtained by the Bronx High School for Science (Bronx Science) and Brooklyn Technical High School (Brooklyn Tech, attended by Dante de Blasio), and then eventually five other schools as well, all of which have a student’s score on the Specialized High School Aptitude Test (SHSAT) as their sole admissions requirement.
The test was first instituted in 1970 as a way of better representing the public school system’s racial diversity; prior to the test, the vast majority of specialized high school students were white, with only a small fraction being black, Asian, and Latino. In the more than 40 years that the test has been in place, the number of Asian students has grown, while the number of black and Latino students (which was comparable to the number of Asian students before 1970) has fallen precipitously. This change was gradual at first, but has happened more dramatically in recent years, according to an article in the New York Times:
At Brooklyn Tech, 10 percent of the 5,332 students today are black — sizable in the realm of specialized high schools, but also a big drop from 1999-2000, when 24 percent were black. At Bronx Science, 3.5 percent of the 3,013 students are black, down from 9 percent in 1999-2000.
The number of blacks at Stuyvesant peaked in 1975, when they made up 12 percent of the school’s enrollment, or 303 of the school’s 2,536 students. In 1980, there were 212 black students; in 1990, 147; in 2000, 109; and in 2005, 66, state records show.
It is because of statistics like this that politicians and administrators have long sought to get rid of the test, or at least minimize its impact on admissions. Mayor Bloomberg was a notable proponent of the test, saying that it is “as fair as fair can be… 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.” But de Blasio has been vociferously in favor of looking at new admissions criteria, and Chancellor Fariña recently said in a statement, “Our goal is to ensure specialized high schools reflect New York City’s unique diversity, while upholding the same high standards. We continue to review a variety of ideas to increase diversity at our specialized high schools such as increasing access to the SHSAT, offering expanded free test prep and continuing to examine changes to admissions policies.” De Blasio, Fariña, and other advocates for reform seem to think that if the specialized high schools adopt similar admissions requirements to some of the city’s other screened high schools, like Bard High School Early College, Beacon, and Millennium, that diversity will be a natural outcome, and that the schools’ make-ups will be more reflective of the city as a whole.
As it turns out, though, this does not look to be the case. A fascinating new study by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools indicates that not only would diversity at the specialized high schools probably not increase if admissions were changed, but it is possible that the only students who would significantly be helped would be economically advantaged, white students. As Sean Corcoran, a researcher from NYU and one of the co-writers of the report, told Chalkbeat, “Maybe it was naive, but I thought if you switched to more holistic measures, it would diversify the admissions pool considerably. It turns out that students disproportionately offered admission to specialized high schools are the same students who get high scores on the state tests and get high grades.”
And, you know, maybe it was naive! Because as is evidenced by the population make-ups of many of the city’s elite, screened high schools, while they might possess larger populations of black and Latino students than at the specialized schools, there is also a significantly higher population of one race of students in particular: whites. The fact is that the students who would most benefit from things like an interview process or an evaluation of things like extracurricular activities are those who already possess an awareness of the the type of social cues that are a product of being born into a privileged social, racial, and economic class. Getting rid of the test would only serve to discriminate against the type of kid who doesn’t know how to do well in an interview, but who can ace the kind of difficult exam which rightly serves as a determination of how well they will be able to do over the next four years of high school.
The other thing that very few opponents of the test like to talk about is the fact that it benefits precisely no one (least of all the students themselves) to allow kids to enter a fast-paced, ultra-competitive school where they have little chance of, well, competing. One thing that the big three (Stuy, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech) specialized high schools all have in common is how large they are. The incoming freshman classes of both Stuy and Bronx Science hover at just under 1,000 students, for Brooklyn Tech, that number is over 1,700. These schools foster atmospheres where independent, self-motivated learners can thrive; students who need more guidance and supervision tend to flail and falter. It serves no one to allow students to enter into an academic setting where they have no chance of succeeding.
But so where should they go? This, in the end, is the real question. Why, after all, is there a focus on dismantling what are inarguably some of the most successful schools in this city, when there are so many others that are failing? Why seek to compromise a positive environment when there are countless other schools that could use some attention? And, really, why is there a focus on the black and Latino kids who are high-achievers already, and who can thrive at schools like Medgar Evers Preparatory School or Midwood High School, where they can get excellent educations, simply because they aren’t attending Stuy? The answer, I think, is as simple as it is depressing: Schools like Stuyvesant will always be a lightning rod because they are examples of the system working (albeit imperfectly), and politicians and administrators would rather focus on a school like that than talk about the far more troubling fact that while only a small percentage of black and Latino students might get into Stuy, less than 65% of blacks and Latinos graduate from high school at all, as compared with over 80% of white and Asian students. But fixing the systemic problems in this city’s public school system are obviously a much bigger task than addressing the lack of diversity in a few of the schools, and so public figures simply distract people from the real problems, and focus on relatively insignificant ones instead. But doing that helps no one, least of all the students who need help the most.
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