The current battle over the legitimacy of the high-stakes test used to determine who is admitted to New York City’s elite public high schools is not something new. Many defenders of the test policy conveniently ignore history. New York City’s specialized high school admission policies have changed over the years, reflecting political agendas, not necessarily educational goals. They can legitimately be changed again. Unfortunately the current battle has pitted leaders of New York’s ethnic communities against each other. Asian Americans have largely benefited from the current admission policy while the percentage of Black and Latino students offered admission to the specialized high schools in 2018 declined to 10%, although they make up almost 70% of the city’s student population. Seventy-three percent of the student body at Stuyvesant High School is Asian while less than 4% is Black or Latino.
Stuyvesant High School was established in 1904 with an all-male student body. The school did not admit its first female student until 1969, and that was only when the city’s Board of Education (BOE) was threatened with a lawsuit. Admission by a one-shot high stakes test was instituted in 1934, thirty years after the school was founded, when the BOE adopted a test developed by Columbia University. The admission’s test was city policy until it was mandated as the sole criteria for admission to one of the three test schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech, in 1973.
Brooklyn Tech was founded in 1922 as another all-boys school. I have not found any information on when it started to use a formal admissions test. When the Bronx High School of Science opened in 1938, it used the Columbia/Stuyvesant test to accept students. Bronx Science became co-educational in 1946. Brooklyn Tech did not admit female students until 1972. I have not been able to document this but I believe that when I was a student at Bronx Science in the 1960s there was a male-female quota and the school accepted two boys for every girl. There were 857 students in my graduating class including 285 girls, or exactly 33%. Friends who attended Bronx Science in the 1950s say the ratio then was more like 6 to 1, and they also suspected a quota.
Starting as early as 1965 serious questions were raised about using a high-stakes Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the sole basis for admission to one of the three specialized high schools. In 1971, New York City Mayor John Lindsey joined critics in calling for reform, charging the test was culturally biased and discriminated against Black and Hispanic students. Lindsey sought to expand an affirmative action program that had started in September 1965 and was designed to increase minority enrollment at the schools. Schools Chancellor Harvey Scribner agreed with the mayor and appointed a commission to study the admissions tests at all the selective schools. However, reform was stymied after protests by parents and alumni led to passage of the Hecht-Calandra Act in May 1971, which limited admission to the three schools by a competitive exam state law, but allowed them to continue a Discovery program.
In 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, New York City New York City, established the Discovery program to bring more minority students into the three test schools. One hundred and fifty-five Black and Latino teens that narrowly missed the admission cut off were recruited to attend a special summer program and 121 were then admitted to the schools in September 1965. In September 1970 352 minority youth were admitted to the test schools via this route. Because of opposition from Civil Rights groups the Hecht-Calandra Act did not terminate this special admissions program. In a 2011 interview, Stanley Teitel, the principal of Stuyvesant, claimed he ended the Discovery program at his school in 2003 because the creation of other test schools by the Bloomberg administration meant students who fell below a new, lower, admission standard to these schools were too weak academically to be successful at Stuyvesant.
A new reform movement was launched in 1996 when a report issued by the community-activist organization ACORN branded the high-stake one-shot admissions test a form of educational apartheid. They were supported by Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, but once again the campaign failed because of deeply entrenched political opposition.
In 1995 the city opened a Specialized High Schools Institute (SHSI), city-run preparatory program that was supposed to even out performance on the SHSAT and make admissions to the specialized high schools fairer, however with the plethora of private tutoring agencies it failed to improve ethnic balance at the schools.
New York City currently has five other high schools that use the Specialized High School Admissions Test, Brooklyn Latin, Staten Island Tech, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College, and High School of American Studies at Lehman College, all started between 2002 and 2006 during the Michael Bloomberg mayoralty. This is a New York City Department of Education (DOE) policy decision not mandated by state law and can be changed without legislative action. A model for a different admissions policy already exists. Townsend Harris High School is an elite high school located near the Queens College-CUNY campus and unlike the “test schools,” it admits students based on a range of criteria including middle school grades, standardized test scores and even attendance records.
Hunter College High School, a 7-12 public school in Manhattan, uses a single, teacher-written test for admission to the school. This is also a DOE policy decision, not mandated by state law. Faculty has recommended changing admission criteria to include interviews, observations, or portfolios of student work, to increase the number of Black and Latino students who attend the school and to minimize the influence of the private test prep companies on the admissions process. The student population is 3% African American and 1% Latino.
To increase African American and Latino enrollment in the specialized high schools New York City can also immediately expand the Discovery program that is permitted under the Hecht-Calandra Act. According to Hecht-Calandra, “A student may be considered for the Discovery Program provided the student: (1) be one of those who takes the regular entrance examination but scores below the cut-of score (2) is certified by his local school as disadvantaged (3) is recommended by his local school as having high potential for the special high school program and (4) attends and then passes a summer preparatory program administered by the special high school . . . A candidate reached for consideration on the basis of this examination score will be accepted for admission to the Discovery Program only if his previous school record is satisfactory. Any discovery program admissions to a special high school shall not exceed fourteen (14) per cent of the number of students scoring above the cut-off score and admitted under the regular examination procedure . . .”
A fourteen percent increase in the number of African American and Latino students admitted to the specialized high schools, added to the approximately 12% currently offered slots, would be a significant improvement. It would also not penalize students whose families invested in expensive preparation programs to help them qualify for admission via the SHSAT.
A number of Asian American politicians have become involved in the debate over the high school admissions policy, including Councilmember Peter Koo who has been prominent in opposition to revamping admissions to the specialized high schools. Congresswoman Grace Meng (Stuyvesant, Class of 1993), complained that she was not consulted before proposals to change the policy were forwarded. John Liu (Bronx Science, Class of 1985), a former Councilmember and City Comptroller denounced the Schools Chancellor’s proposal to change the admissions policy as “the most offensive and irritating comments that Asian-Americans have heard in quite some time.”
Two very prominent African Americans are graduates of New York City’s specialized high schools, former United States Attorney General Eric Holder (Stuyvesant, Class of 1969) and physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (Bronx Science, Class of 1976). Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose parents of from Puerto Rico, graduated from Hunter College High School in 1998. So far none of them has spoken out publicaly on the latest admissions controversy and the value of the high-stakes. Their contributions to the discussion would be welcome.
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