Education advocates are calling on the DOE to rethink how it educates its top students
New York City students have only one shot at getting into the city’s elite specialized high schools – by scoring high on a test offered once a year in October. But as long as the test has been offered – since 1972 — black and Hispanic children have not gained admittance at the same rate as other students. Now local leaders, who feel that city efforts have not gone far enough to even the playing field, are calling for the Department of Education to completely rethink how it educates its top students.
The Specialized High School Admissions Test, or the SHSAT, qualifies eighth graders to attend one of the eight selective 9-12 schools, which are located across all five boroughs. But for black and Hispanic students, who make up 68 percent of the public high school population, the test is especially challenging: of the 5,106 who were granted placement at one of the eight schools in 2016, only 10 percent were black or Hispanic, according to Department of Education data.
In 2012, the NAACP filed a civil rights complaint on the grounds that the SHSAT is not fair to black and Hispanic students. Last year, the city agreed to make six structural changes in order to make the test more accessible to these students of color.
“The NAACP is forcing the issue, which is proper,” said Rick Sherman, former Community Board 2 education chair and a retired public school teacher of 35 years. “They are saying ‘You are leaving our kids out.’ I think you have to give our kids a fighting chance.”
More programs for talented elementary and middle schoolers
One solution could be to increase gifted and talented programs in the area’s elementary and middle schools. To investigate that issue, Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. has created the Gifted & Talented Education Task Force along with the Brooklyn borough president and education officials. The borough presidents are also pressuring for the DOE to consider offering the top 5 percent of students at every middle school a seat in borough-specific specialized high schools. Addressing parent concerns, they would also like to see more free or low cost test prep in the South Bronx and Brooklyn.
“Parents who cannot afford additional test prep services for the SHSAT should not see their children left behind for lack of funds,” states a report produced by the task force.
The closest for-profit test prep site to Hunts Point is the Huntington Test Prep Center of the Bronx, 2.3 miles away in the East Bronx.
However there are opportunities for the students who need resources. In 1995, the city created the Specialized High School Institute, or “DREAM” (Determination, Resilience, Enthusiasm, Ambition and Motivation), a 22-month prep program that starts in the sixth grade. Students must be in a city public or charter school, meet certain income requirements, and have scored a minimum of 3.0 on the NY State grade five ELA exam. Students are given an offer through their middle schools and are chosen for the program through a lottery.
There is also a DREAM Summer/Fall Intensive, which starts recruiting seventh graders this spring. Students who have scored a minimum of 3.1 on the grade six English exam and 4.1 grade six math exam will get an invitation from their prinicpals to enroll. Both programs are tailored for low-income, high-achieving students, and are overseen by the DOE’s Office for Equity and Access.
“There are bright students in our schools; you just need to nurture them,” said Sherman, who thinks local leaders should be pushing the issue at community board meetings and beyond.
Black and Hispanic students still take the test in record-breaking numbers (nearly three times as much as white classmates) despite disappointing admission results. According to the city, out of the 27,000 students who took the test last year, 5,914 were black; 6,070 were Hispanic; 4,729 were white; 8,062 were Asian; 194 were Native American; and 2,002 were multiracial or from private schools or chose not to disclose race. According to the most recent admission data, out of the 5,078 students offered seats in specialized high schools 3.5 percent were black, 6.5 percent were Hispanic, 28 percent were white and 52.5 percent were Asian.
DOE’s changes to testing aren’t enough
The Department of Education’s changes included taking out some more confusing sections, allowing more time for the test and balancing the test between math and English – all as a way to make the test more fair. Still, the test is the only way to get admitted, and many critics take issue with that.
The NAACP’s legal filing argues that this method of admission is already unfair to students. “Under this admissions policy, regardless of whether a student has achieved straight As from kindergarten through eighth grade or whether he or she demonstrates other signs of high academic potential, the only factor that matters for admission is his or her score on a single test.”
Sherman agrees. “You want the specialized high schools to have the brightest, the ones that you know will succeed when the work is very hard,” said Sherman. “But if the test is keeping blacks and Hispanics out, the questions may not refer to their environment. That has to change. There should be interviews and other ways to get students in.”
Last spring, state legislators introduced a bill that would broaden the criteria for admission beyond the single exam that now determines acceptance to eight city schools.
There are 15,000 students in specialized high schools across the city in grades 9 through 12. Those schools are Bronx High School of Science, High School of American Studies at Lehman College, Brooklyn Latin School, Brooklyn Technical High School, Queens High School for the Sciences at York, Staten Island Technical High School, the High School of Mathematics, Science and Engineering at the City College of New York, and Stuyvesant High School.
This year, students were given another half hour for the test, from 150 minutes to 180 minutes. In those three hours, the number of questions also increased to 57 questions each in both English Language Arts and math sections (rather than 40 and 57 respectively before). The test also no longer includes the scrambled paragraph portions (in which students would have to sort sentences in paragraph order by their context) and has fewer multiple choice options (going from five to four). The test now focuses on English revising and editing as well as comprehension. However, the language of the test — the wording of the questions — has not changed, according to the Department of Education. The test design hadn’t been changed for nearly two decades.
“There has to be some cultural relevance,” said Cedric McClester, the current education chair of Community Board 2. “The test needs to make more effort to be inclusive.”
McClester believes that the small changes to the test are not worthwhile unless questions are changed to be more relatable to a wider base of students. McClester, who also doesn’t believe a test should be the only requirement for admission, sees a problem with the hypothetical editing questions and how they differ from the material that work in school.
According to the Department of Education’s SHSAT handbook, students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) or who are disabled can get extended time for the test. The department also offers accommodations for students with special learning needs, such as instructions translated into nine languages and a bilingual translation glossary. The test is in English, and follows a similar format to college entrance exams such as the SAT.
“I’m not saying to dumb down the test,” said McClester. “But let’s have an equal playing field. Put it in language that I can understand.”
Despite odds, minority students keep taking the test
The Bronx High School of Science, whose graduates have won eight Nobel prizes, more than any other school in the country, has a black student population of 2.1 percent and a Hispanic population of 5.5 percent. And with nearly 3,000 students, none are English Language Learners, compared to 11 percent of school children citywide.
However, the statistics are not discouraging all students from striving to pass the exam. Kate Ramirez, an educational counselor at the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, says that her fall caseload usually includes at least 15 students preparing for the test. Some middle schools – though none in Hunts Point — disseminate information on the test and even offer test prep classes for students, but more often students are expected to study for the test on their own. The Department of Education offers two free tests in its handbook.
“Black and Hispanic students are a big part of the city,” said Sherman. “We want diversity in our schools to produce students who will help this city, state and country grow.”