In a 2014 UCLA report, New York public schools were called the “most segregated . . . in the country.” In particular, the report found that “black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10 percent white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools.”
So when the New York City Council’s education committee recently approved a bill to expressly recognize the value of diversity, it was an important and long-overdue step toward actively increasing integration in the city’s public education system. The bill requires the state Department of Education to report much more comprehensive grade-level demographic and socioeconomic data, and states that the city should make diversity a priority in its school admission policies and practices, its decision about where to locate new schools, and its school rezoning practices. The resolution was approved by the City Council unanimously and was coupled with another bill that requires all schools to regularly report data on its progress in making the school’s more diverse.
However, the May 26 victory was not without its setbacks, as the City Council simultaneously declined to consider a bill that would, some say, challenge the lack of diversity in some of the city’s most elite schools—many of which are feeder schools into the nation’s top-tier universities. The city currently has separate admission policies for nine specialized high schools, eight of which require students to take the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT), and the ninth school, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, a visual and performing arts school, requires students to complete an audition or submit an arts portfolio instead. For those eight schools requiring the test, the SHSAT is the sole determinant of admission and if a student does not have one of the highest scores, he or she will not be offered one of the coveted seats for the following school year, despite their GPA, state test scores, or other achievements.
Opportunity for All?
Civil rights advocates assert that this entrance exam makes it more difficult for black and Latino students to gain access to the selective high schools. In 2012, the NAACP and several other equal education advocates filed a complaint on behalf of minority applicants to these elite schools, claiming that the SHSAT is an inadequate way to predict academic success and that using the test as the sole admissions requirement causes an “unjustified, racially disparate impact.” Indeed, a lack of racial diversity is prevalent in NYC’s specialized high schools: this spring, only ten black students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School out of 953 spots, and black and Latino students combined make up just 12 percent of students in all nine selective high schools. Black and Latino students represent a total 70 percent of students in NYC public schools overall.
While the New York City Council is absolutely right to address the need for greater diversity in all of its schools, which it did by affirming the diversity-reporting bill, special attention should be paid to these elite high schools, as these are very often gatekeepers to exclusive colleges, elite careers, and well-developed social and professional networks. According to professor and author Thomas Dye (in his 2002 book, Who’s Running America?), 42 percent of all United States government leaders and 54 percent of all corporate leaders attended one of the nation’s top elite undergraduate institutions. If the City Council truly values diversity in the NYC school system, then it must ensure that minority students have greater access to these elite, high-quality high schools.
An NYU study reveals that reaching a balance of diversity will require more than just eliminating the SHSAT. The study explores six admissions options, some of which would increase the share of white students, while others would increase the amount of Latino and female students admitted. Variations of tactics include incorporating grades, attendance, and state test scores into admissions decisions. The most certain way to increase racial diversity in NYC’s most selective high schools, the study suggests, would be admitting the top 10 percent of all NYC high schools. This specific recommendation has a major drawback however, which is that it may sacrifice average achievement in incoming classes, especially in math, which the NYU study notes may not be optimal for math and science high schools.
Making the problem more challenging is that the specialized high schools already do relatively well in terms of socioeconomic diversity—the eight schools that require the SHSAT in 2014 had, on average, 54 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced lunch. Stuyvesant High School 2009 alumnus Amitav Chakraborty told me in an interview that the test-only policy works for low-income Asian families in New York City with access to “homegrown networks” of friends or family with prior knowledge of the exam to assist with test prep—networks that black and Latino students may not have access to, since these groups have been historically excluded from these schools. Chakraborty emphasizes that the city must do a better job to provide free or low-cost test preparation for black and Latino students and should raise awareness in these communities of the opportunity to take the test. Chakraborty, who will begin at the NYU School of Law in the fall, believes the SHSAT and his admission to Stuyvesant provided him a ticket to a better life.
“I myself went to one of the worst middle schools in the city before testing into Stuyvesant,” Chakraborty says. “Had I not gotten in, I would have attended my zoned high school—also one of the worst schools in the city. So it goes without saying that the test offered an opportunity that I would not have had, and definitely changed my life trajectory.” But the test-only policy simply doesn’t produce the same results for most low-income, minority students.
Making Racial Diversity a Priority
The New York specialized high schools for years have prioritized achievement on a single standardized test at the expense of racial diversity. Although the City Council took a first step with legislation to promote more diversity in the public schools, continuing current admission practices at the city’s elite high schools undermine these efforts.
Instead, a more holistic application process is needed, one that values diversity and individual achievement, coupled with a more rigorous attempt to ensure more minority students have the opportunity and resources to take this test and succeed on it. Although the top 10 percent policy may slightly sacrifice the level of prior achievement in incoming students, the policy should be considered and New York’s specialized high schools should experiment further with their admissions processes to truly achieve a diverse student body. The status quo of significantly limiting opportunities for black and Latino students is unacceptable.