The media is afire with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify NYC’s most competitive high schools — Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech — by eliminating the SHSAT admissions test. Instead of basing student suitability for these ultra-competitive schools on a single test, he says, students will be admitted based on classroom grades and state standardized test scores (a position endorsed by gubernatorial hopeful Cynthia Nixon, who just issued her own utopian education proposals with a price tag of $7.4 billion).
I think we’re talking about the wrong issue. The problem isn’t the SHSAT (used by not only these three top schools but also another five specialized schools). The problem is that NYC’s K-8 programming, with few exceptions, doesn’t prepare students for the pressure-cooker environment, 34 kids to a class, that one recent graduate describes as “ten floors of fluorescently-lit hallways where students do homework between classes; it is escalators packed with kids clutching open textbooks, using those precious 30 seconds to take a last mental photograph of the Krebs cycle before a test.”
Let’s step back for a minute because the segregation at Stuy, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around for at least two generations. In the 1960’s Bronx Science was 85 percent Jewish . In the 1970’s Stuyvesant was disparagingly referred to as “a free prep school for Jews.” Not sure about the Jewish percentage for Brooklyn Tech but it was high. Over the last two decades the demographics have shifted from disproportionate numbers of Jewish students attending elite schools to disproportionate numbers of Asian-American students who right now comprise 62 percent of Bronx Science’s enrollment, 73 percent of Stuy’s, and 60.5 percent of Brooklyn Tech’s.
, The City public school demographics, by the way, are 16.1 percent Asian.
Is this “fair?” Should the highest-achieving schools in the city be restricted to the current generation of education-obsessed new immigrants, once Jewish, now Asian? No, not if you’re using proportionality as a proxy for academic equity. In an ideal world, Black and Brown students would far outnumber white and Asian students at elite schools, mirroring the city’s diversity.
But if that’s de Blasio/Nixon’s goal — as it is for many of us — then the only way to get there is to turn our focus from these three schools to the 1,800 that make up the New York City public school system. The focus must be on K-8 because without solid, comprehensive academic underpinnings, students will be set up for failure at elite specialized schools.
In other words, if we wait until high school to fix inequitable education opportunity, then we’re way too late. There’s a reason that half of the students enrolled in SHSAT high schools came from just 22 middle schools.
The proof is in de Blasio’s former proposal to diversify SHSAT schools. We will achieve equity, he promised in 2017, through a program that offers free SHSAT tutoring to underserved students the summer between seventh and eighth grade. Enrollment to this barrier-shattering program was capped at 500 middle school students, but only three hundred showed up. Here are the results, as reported by Alina Adams:
In 2017, 3.8 percent of offers to attend NYC’s eight SHSAT schools went to Black students, while 6.5 percent went to Hispanic ones. That’s roughly 10% of the 5000+ teens who passed, out of the 28,000+ who took the exam. This year [the first year of de Blasio’s initiative], 524 kids were accepted. Which is actually down from 530 last year.
The Mayor’s diversity initiative didn’t work. Why? Because eighth grade is too late. Seventh grade is too late. If NYC is to achieve diversity, then students have to attend high-quality schools right from the get-go.
Yes, Mayor de Blasio and Ms. Nixon: NYC’s elite high schools are shamefully segregated. They always have been. But the solution isn’t making them easier to get into. The solution is fixing the academic trajectory students traverse from kindergarten through eighth grade.
And that’s a lot harder than getting rid of a test.