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A Tricky Calculus:

How Do We Fix Admissions


At Specialized High
Schools?

By Cyrus Lalkaka

I. Introduction
The admission process for Specialized High Schools is has long been
accused of being biased the SHSAT is the sole metric for admission into these
schools, and test prep availability, access to resources, and health concerns
correlated to race or borough are important aspects of prospective students
that are ignored. Indeed, this has been a self-evident truth to New York City
educators and stakeholders throughout the years: the Ocean-Hill Brownsville
protests of 1968 cried out about educational inequities in specialized high
schools, while in 1971 chancellor Harvey B. Scribner declared that any test of
academic achievement tends to be culturally biased1 in direct reference to the
SHSAT. The debate has raged since the inception of specialized high schools in
the early 20th century, and continues to burn brightly today. Countless parties
the mayors office, state senators, the teachers union, non-profits, concerned
parentshave contributed to a broad discussion on how to create more
equitable admissions standards without diluting the talent and essence that
sets those schools apart.
Playing mad scientist in the chaotic laboratory of education is a tricky
calculus, but in addressing the equitability of specialized high schools, one
element draws the most scrutiny: the SHSAT. Critics both in past and present
contend that the SHSAT should not be the sole criteria for admissions to
specialized high schools. Instead, they say, specialized high schools should
eschew the entrance exam in favor of more equitable alternatives whether
through promising seats to students who place in the top percentage of their
middle school class, or by instituting a more holistic admissions process with
criteria such as interviews and teacher recommendations. These alternatives,
however, are insufficient in addressing larger problems in education. Selecting
gifted students is, at its heart, an intrinsically subjective task, and the goal
should be to reduce the subjective element as much as humanly possible. The
SHSAT, while imperfect, does that it tests on the grounds of academic merit,
1HeatherMacdonald,HowGothamsEliteHighSchoolsEscapedtheLevellersAxe,http://www.city
journal.org/html/9_2_how_gothams_elite.html(accessedMarch14,2013).

and has led to over a century of superlative achievement at the specialized


high schools. Rather than abolishing the SHSAT, our efforts would be better
directed at increasing the quality of NYC education as a whole from grades K
6.

II. Background to Specialized High Schools


The Specialized High Schools are nine public high schools under the New
York City Department of Education. Admission to these schools is selective, and
prospective students are required to take the Specialized High School
Admissions Test (SHSAT) to apply to eight of them.2 The eight Specialized High
Schools that require the SHSAT are:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.

The Bronx High School of Science


The Brooklyn Latin School
Brooklyn Technical High School
High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College
High School of American Studies at Lehman College
Queens High School for the Sciences at York College
Staten Island Technical High School
Stuyvesant High School

The ninth school, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and
Performing Arts requires an audition rather than the SHSAT.3 Stuyvesant,
Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science were the three original Specialized High
Schools, being established in 1904, 1918, and 1934 respectively. The other
schools were to be designated Specialized High Schools in the later years, most
during the 2000s.
The original three Specialized High Schools started as manual or technical
schools with more stringent curriculums and standards than other New York
City High Schools. This, plus the establishment of a fourth prestigious school,
2TheCityofNewYork,SpecializedHighSchools:TheExamHighSchools,NYC.gov,
[http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/1EF8D3144E63432B9EF3
234231870BB0/127821/2012HandoutSpecializedSchools_English.pdf](accessedMarch9,2013).

3Ibid.
3

Townsend Harris Hall, mirrored a movement that create elite high schools
influenced in the mold of the age-old Boston Latin School.4 Judging from official
accounts, these were halcyon days in specialized education; Stuyvesants
charter proudly proclaims that the school became the first science high school
in the country, establishing a reputation for scholarship. City officials,
educators, and parents alike welcomed the development of the specialized
schools and their efforts to maintain a high-quality student body. In 1934,
Stuyvesant under principal Sinclair J. Wilson became the first of the schools to
implement entrance exams focusing on science and math in an effort to better
ensure the quality of the student body a test that would become the
precursor to the SHSAT.5 When Bronx Science was founded several years later,
it, too, adopted an entrance exam, written and developed with the help of
Columbia University. With Stuyvesant and Bronx Science serving as the
trendsetters, the institution and practice of specialized entrance exams
officially came into being.
The creation of the SHSAT brought increasingly pitched debate with it over the
years (mainly about race), culminating in the Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971. The
late 1960s and early 1970s in New York saw many developments in the debate
on education, with issues of race equality and underrepresentation being the
primary topics. Significant events of the day included the Ocean-Hill
Brownsville strikes of 1968, which pitted teachers and educators against local
community leaders. The strike marked a significant change in the direction of
NYC public schools and attitudes towards affirmative action: community leaders
in the mostly black neighborhood of Ocean-Hill Brownsville supplanted the preexisting, mostly white school board presiding over the neighborhood, creating a
clash of grassroots locals versus entrenched education professionals. Among
the community activists demands was the conversion of the specialized high
schools into community run schools open to all.6
4Macdonald.
5StuyvesantHighSchool,StuyvesantHighSchoolParentHandbook,http://www.stuypa.org/files/documents/04
05ParentHandbook.pdf(accessedMarch9th,2013).
6Macdonald.

That demand never came to fruition, but the severity of the strike which
saw the teachers union go on strike for over two months brought significant
attention to the cause, and resulted in the expansion of the affirmative action
program Discovery. The program, which lowered the cut-off score for certain
students in granting admission, marked one of the first flashpoints in the
debate over balancing merit against detrimentally lowering standards.7
Coinciding with the Ocean-Hill Brownsville strikes was the
decentralization of administration and governance of the elementary and
middle schools. This dictated the creation of 32 Community School Districts,
each possessing its own elected boards. The two developments reflected a
broader movement to increase access to education, with the City of New Yorks
Open Admissions policy of 1970 being a prominent example.
Even then, debate over racial bias and selectivity in Specialized High Schools
struck a resonant chord among educators. The superintendent of one of the
new Community School Districts, Alfredo O. Mathew Jr., of District 3 in
Manhattans Upper West Side, asserted that Bronx High School of Science was
a privileged educational center for children of the White middle class because
culturally oriented examinations worked to screen out black and Puerto Rican
students who could succeed at the school. On grounds of racial discrimination,
the Superintendent and his local school board members asked the Chancellors
office to change the policy to eliminate the SHSAT entrance examination and to
move to admission based on the recommendation of elementary school
personnel.
O. Mathews claims of privilege and racial discrimination prompted a
response from then Chancellor of New York City public schools, Harvey Scribner.
Scriber acknowledged that the SHSAT had flaws and pledged to ameliorate it to
better test the ability to handle mathematical ideas and operations, and the
ability to read and comprehend scientific literature [that] is closely related to
success in the schools program. However, Scribner also cautioned there is a

7Ibid.
5

question as to the extent any test of academic achievement tends to be


culturally biased, echoing a debate that has raged furiously ever since.
By the end of March 1971, a bill had been introduced into the state
legislature, supported by 14 Senators and 42 assembly members of both
partied, asking their colleagues to approve highs schools in New York City.
Sponsored by Senator John D. Calandra, a Bronx Republican, and Assemblyman
Burton G. Hecht, a Bronx Democrat, the bill dictated that admissions to The
Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High School, and Brooklyn Technical
High School and such similar further special high schools which may be
established shall be solely and exclusively by taking a competitive, objective,
and scholastic achievement examination, which shall be open to each and
every child in the City of New York in the eighth of ninth year of study, in
accordance with the rules promulgated by the N.Y.C. Board of Education,
without regard to any school district wherein the child may reside. No
candidate may be admitted to a special highs school unless he has successfully
achieved a score above the cut-off score for the openings in the school for
which he has taken the examination.
Today, the debate over racial balance and equality in specialized high
schools and SHSAT rages as furiously as ever. The present day debate has not
changed in essence from years prior; only the details and reportage has. Many
news publications in the past few years The New York Times being foremost,
with the NY1, the New York Post, and educational publications like EdWeek also
leading the charge have seized upon the racial disparities at specialized high
schools, reporting on the issue in the midst of the NYC education systems
broader failings [see Appendix at the very end for visual representation of
racial disparities at specialized high schools]. The age of data-driven teacher
and student evaluation has reignited debates on why some students prosper,
while others flail. In the context of the specialized high schools, SHSAT test
preparation and differences in cultural upbringing are frequently cited as
difference makers. A recent article in the New York Times describes specialized

high schools as vital steppingstones8 for second-generation Asian


immigrants, many of whom spend years and money on extensive test prep.
Familial pressure to strive for prestigious education is incomprehensibly
pervasive among Asian high school students, and several Asian students who
attend Specialized High Schools have said that rigorous studying and test
taking is ingrained in their cultures.9
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has criticized the exam for
being racially discriminatory.

10

They also argue there is a marked failure to

provide African Americans and Latinos with opportunities to learn the material
or otherwise prepare to meet the admissions standards used to determine
whether students will be placed in these specialized programs. The NAACPs
complaint offers the clearest window into the debate levied against the SHSAT.

III. Alternatives to the SHSAT


The argument against the SHSAT is clear: not enough minority or poor students
pass the test and are admitted to specialized high school tests. The
fundamentals of the argument havent changed in the eighty odd years since
specialized high schools have been around, but the proposed solutions have.
There are four core ways to address the lack of minority and poor
students at specialized high schools:
1.) to abolish the SHSAT entirely
2.) to make specialized high school admissions criteria more holistic, so
that measures such as interviews, teacher recommendations, middle
school grade transcripts, portfolios, etc. are considered
3.) to improve community education and expand outreach through
initiatives such as the Discovery program, or neighborhood test-prep
tutoring programs
8KyleSpencer,ForAsians,SchoolsTestsAreVitalSteppingstones,NewYorkTimes,October26,2012,Education
section,NewYorkedition.
9Ibid.
10AlBaker,ChargesofBiasinAdmissionTestPolicyatEightElitePublicHighSchools,NewYorkTimes,
September27,2012,NYsection,NewYorkedition.

4.) to leave the test as is, but improve the circumstances surrounding
education that is, improve schooling from grades K 6 in a more
fundamental manner
There is certainly no panacea to the SHSAT question, but all three of these
solutions offer intriguing possibilities.

1.)

Abolishing the test entirely

This solution easily amounts to the most radical of the bunch. Even the most
ardent critics of the SHSAT and specialized high schools former chancellors,
legislators, community groups such as ACORN and the NAACP have not
seriously floated this possibility. These parties argue that it is flawed to rely on
one test as the sole basis for admissions; however, they have not advocated for
the abolition of the SHSAT. Rather, they contend that other academic criteria
should be considered along with the SHSAT in determining admissions, an
argument further explored in the next bullet point.
There are some thought provoking alternatives to the test, though. Perhaps
the best template for what the specialized high school system would look like
without one centralized test is San Franciscos two magnet high schools, Lowell
High School and the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of Arts. Both schools
halted the practice of neighborhood admissions (i.e. those who live in the
schools surrounding neighborhood are automatically zoned and granted
admission to the school) since 1966. Interestingly, the Lowell and the Ruth
Asawa School eschewed admissions tests in favor of a broader, more
cumulative criteria: middle school students must submit applications including
their standardized test scores, GPA, extracurricular activities, and a writing
sample.11 Lowell High School in particular has had undeniable success, with
graduation rates of nearly 100% in addition to serving as the largest feeder
school to the well-rated University of California school system; the school also
has a long list of distinguished alumni across a wide range of disciplines, with
examples such as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Nobel Prize in Physics
winner Eric Cornell, and Pulitzer Prize cartoonist Rube Goldberg. 12 Lowell
performs well on a national scale, too: the school is an annual fixture among
11SanFranciscoUnifiedSchoolDistrict,LowellHighSchoolEnrollment,SFUSD,9April2013,
[http://www.sfusd.edu/page=hs.lowell],accessedApril92013.
12Ibid.

the top ten public schools nationwide as tallied by the annual U.S. World News
Survey ranking the nations top high schools.
Perhaps not surprising, though, is that many legal challenges have been
mounted specifically against Lowells holistic admissions process. The lawsuits
charged that Lowells admissions were racially discriminatory: a 1983 decision
titled San Francisco NAACP v. San Francisco Unified School District
implemented a race-based admissions policy similar to what the NAACP is
attempting to implement in NYC specialized high schools, decreeing that
Chinese-American students score 65 out of 69 on their overall admissions
criteria as opposed to 61 for any non-Asian students Chinese students were
given a tangibly different, harder standard for admissions, discrimination of a
wholly different sort. Grossly inequitable in its own way, that 1983 decision was
followed by a 1994 decision, Ho v. San Francisco Unified District. The 1994
decision rescinded the 83 one, instead creating a diversity index in its place:
rather than ethnicity, the new index gave increased opportunity on the basis of
socioeconomic background, mothers educational level, prior academic
achievement, and languages spoken at home for instance, Milos, a student
hailing from a poor immigrant family that speaks English as a second language
and lacks college graduates, might be granted an advantage in admissions
over Ben, a student of similar academic background but who is a native of the
U.S. and has affluent, educated parents.
The balance between ethnic and socioeconomic privilege proved to be a
precarious one, however. In the years since the 1994 decision, observers have
pointed out that Lowell has become less ethically diverse than it used to be
(which is not to say that the school admits less qualified students than it used
to if anything, its discontinuation of affirmative action practices might very
well have led to the opposite). The U.S. District Court for the Northern District
of California, in light of this information, decided in 2004 to discontinue using
the diversity index as a basis of admissions the long journey ranging from
1983s anti-Chinese measures to 94s intriguing diversity index, all the way
back to square one in the 2004 decision.
10

The stark flip-flop from practices aimed at promoting minorities to those


promoting less privileged socioeconomic circumstance at Lowell High School is
but a small window into the unwinnable art of selecting gifted students for
gifted schools. New York Citys specialized high schools had ignited debate
ten years earlier, and now it was San Franciscos Lowell High School tasked
with picking and selecting who they deemed bright and talented his grades
might be low, but hes of champion character, might go the reasoning for one
applicant; shes got high marks, but, well, shes Asian, might go another.
No matter how you dissect it, selecting students for a magnet school
worthy schools, having produced countless men and women of ability and
distinction is an intrinsically subjective task. Whether a school for the gifted
uses an entrance exam like the SHSAT, or portfolios, teacher recommendations,
interviews, and the like, the process is an inherently arbitrary one that will
always draw charges of discrimination one way or another. At first, Lowell High
School suffered from the same accusations that NYC schools like Hunter and
Stuyvesant do today that their schools were not racially equitable, the result
of flawed admissions processes that neglected to give minorities sufficient
opportunity. Then, when Lowell tried to institute its innovative diversity index
an amalgam of socioeconomic criteria that on paper, comes across as more
technically sound different problems arose. The Northern Californian courts
tried to legislate their way through the whole mess, navigating throughout the
racial and socioeconomic spectrum, but their efforts ultimately flopped. Such
results hint that the diversity problem at these magnet schools is perhaps more
intractable and pervasive than the school itself.

11

(pictured above: an Economics class at Lowell HS in 2004; note the striking paucity of nonAsians. Does Lowells admission process favor Asians, or are they there on the strength of
academic merit?)

2.) Changing the test


Faculty committees at specialized high schools have recommended
broadening the admissions process to include criteria like interviews,
observations or portfolios of student work, in part to increase minority
enrollment and blunt the impact of the professional test preparation
undertaken by many prospective students.13
The NAACP has proposed that the NYCDOE and the NYSDOE revise the
admissions procedures for the Specialized High Schools to comply with federal
law,14 contending that using the SHSAT as the sole criterion for admission to
the Specialized High Schools is in violation of Title VI [see footnote for

13SharonOtterman,DiversityDebateConvulsesEliteHighSchool,NewYorkTimes,4August2010,
[http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/05/nyregion/05hunter.html?ref=asianamericans&_r=0],accessedApril4,2013.
14NAACPLegalDefenseFund,Specializedhighschoolscomplaint,NAACPLDP,2011,
[http://www.naacpldf.org/files/case_issue/Specialized%20High%20Schools%20Complaint.pdf],page30.

12

explanation]15 and its implementing regulations.16 To this end, the NAACP legal
council has proposed legislation that would require specialized schools to base
admissions on multiple measurements, the central demand of a civil rights
complaint filed last year by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The complaint,
which the federal Office of Civil Rights is considering, says the NYCDOE and
the NYSDOE should consider multiple measures including middle school grades,
attendance, teacher recommendations, leadership, community service, and
other aspects of applicants own backgrounds and experiences, as well as the
demographic profile of students middle schools and neighborhoodsall of
which can help assess their achievements and capabilities in the context of the
opportunities they have received.17

18

These proposals for more holistic admissions read well on paper, but wilt
under further scrutiny. Using interviews, portfolios, recommendations, and
social background as admissions criteria presents the same flaws (if not
more) as the current SHSAT: just like students can receive test prep for the
SHSATs, a student can be coached to give a perfect interview or a polished
portfolio. Criteria like leadership and community service are intangible,
subjective criteria less objective than a test such as the SHSAT, in fact that
can rely more on personal connections and savvy than tangible academic merit
as measured through test scores. In this sense, holistic admissions opens a can
of worms of its own it twiddles with the numbers and margins rather than
fundamentally changing the equation; it applies a mere Band-Aid to a sick
education system needing surgery.
3.) Improving community education and programs
15TitleVIisasectionofthelandmarkCivilRightsActof1964thatpreventsdiscriminationbygovernmentagencies
thatreceivefederalfundsspecializedhighschoolsareunderthepurviewofandreceivefundingfromtheNYCDOE,
thustheyarefederallyproscribedfromdiscriminatoryadmissionpractices.
16Ibid.
17PhilissaCramer,FewerblackandHispanicstudentsadmittedtotophighschools,GothamSchools,15March
2013,[http://gothamschools.org/2013/03/15/fewerblackandhispanicstudentsadmittedtotophighschools/],
accessedApril5,2013.
18NAACP,30.

13

The holistic standards the NAACP supports as necessary do not strike me


as a thorough, effective solution. What they do propose that resonates as valid
and necessary changes is a need for the NYCDOE and NYSDOE to demonstrate
that any test [such as the SHSAT] must be aligned with the curriculum that
students across New York Citys public school system have an opportunity to
learn.19 The NAACP also asserts that any revised admissions procedure should
make full use of the Discovery Program, already sanctioned under New York
state law, and other tools to ensure that even students from the most
disadvantaged backgrounds get a fair opportunity to take advantage of the
pipelines to leadership offered by the Specialized High Schools. Similar to gun
control background checks, reaching out to minority or poor students who
qualify to take the SHSAT or show promise in the years leading up to the test is
a simple, yet very tangible step in improving admissions rates for those
students and creating a more balanced, diverse student body.
First-hand testimony and anecdotal evidence seems to support this idea:
a classmate of mine, Gianni Rivera, attended the Bronx High School of Science,
and credits her admission to the school as a result of community outreach and
tutoring in her native borough of the Bronx. I qualified on the state exams [for
the SHSATS], but probably wouldnt have known about the SHSATs and my
opportunity to go to Bronx Science had I not been told, and then tutored, by my
community program, she tells me.

4.) SOLUTION: Keep the test, and work to improve K-6


education to fundamentally
Despite the SHSATs flaws one test cannot possibly measure a students
full aptitude, and many gifted students are indubitably denied entry to
specialized high schools it stands out as the least worst admissions
standard. Ultimately, the SHSAT is against social forces that are stronger than
more pervasive than any one set of institutions. If they change their standards,
19Ibid.
14

they will help some kids, but they risk letting in kids who are not prepared for
the academic environments of specialized high schools, and throwing the
present model which has worked for over half a century, to great success as
measured by college admission rates and distinguished alum20 out of whack.
Every NYC student should have an opportunity for an education that specialized
high schools provide, but that is not realistic, unfortunately.
At the core of the issue, the SHSATs are just a symptom, rather than a
cause for low enrollment of minorities and poor students it is the broader
failings of the NYC tertiary schooling system, rather than the SHSATs
themselves, that are to blame. Specialized high schools like Bronx Science,
Stuyvesant, and Hunter are outliers not because they are feeder schools or
breeding grounds meant to perpetuate hierarchies of the Ivy-bound elite; if
anything, NYCs moneyed private schools fill that role. Rather, specialized high
schools are about as equitable as the system permits them to be; they are
unique in that they are institutions for students who manage to overcome the
vast deficiencies present in NYCs public schools.
Even in the era of increased accountability and reliance on test scores
and statistics under Mayor Bloombergs administration, NYC elementary
schools have proven to be a definitive weak link in educating the citys
children. Graduation rates are up, as are state ELA test scores, but those
seemingly promising, improved numbers have been proven largely empty (see
Appendix Fig. 1-1 and 1-2): despite increasing graduation rates, the amount of
students who need remedial learning going into college is higher than ever,
with a 2011 Times article stating that only 37 percent of students who entered
high school in 2006 left four years later adequately prepared for college. 21 The
mediocre state of NYCs tertiary education is also evinced through NYCs low
scores on tests comparing the city to both the rest of the U.S. (as shown
20BronxSciencehasmoreNobelandPulitzerPrizewinnersthanentirecountries:theschoolhasproducedseven
winnersoftheNobelPrizeinPhysicsandsevenwinnersofthePulitzer.
21SharonOtterman,CollegeReadinessLowAmongStateGraduates,DataShow,NewYorkTimes,14June2011,
[http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/nyregion/37ofnewyorkgraduatesmeetcollegereadinessstandard.html],
accessedApril8,2013.

15

through the NAEP test; see Appendix Fig. 2-1) and international community
(shown through the PISA; see Appendix Fig. 2-2). New York City students scored
slightly lower on federal math tests in 2011 than they did in 2009, even as test
scores of their counterparts in other big cities inched upward (Fig. 2-1, 2-2). On
both a national and international basis of comparison, NYC students tested as
poorly as ever in taking a test comparing them to students from 65 other
countries.22
This points to a glaring flaw in the numbers-based educational model:
higher numbers dont necessarily correlate to higher standards. Despite the
rising percentage of students who passed the New York state ELA exam, that
improvement has not come through legitimate means; under the watch of
former NYC chancellor Joel Klein, the minimum scores needed state ELA exams
were lowered (moving the goalposts), which helps explain why NYC students
state test scores climbed despite their continuing mediocrity in basic math,
reading, and writing skills.23
So why is it that the standard of education in NYC public schools
stubbornly refuses to improve? My own experiences as an NYC public school
lifer shed some light on the problem. Despite being a member of a relatively
privileged class middle to upper middle class income parents, attendee of a
well-rated elementary school (P.S.6.) on Manhattans Upper East side, then two
magnet schools for middle school and high school even I have noticed stark,
non-uniform methodology in teaching basic skills such as multiplication or
essay writing. At P.S.6., I was taught math through an experimental,
progressive system called TERC, which emphasized cutesy techniques such
as number lines and pictographs as a means of learning multiplication tables .
Although well-intentioned, TERC most definitely did not teach me any real math
skills, and so my multiplication and division skills upon graduating elementary
22gaccessedApril7,2013.
23Aspointedoutbytheaforementionedmetricsof1.)theneedforremediallearninggoingintocollege,and2.)poor
scoresincomparisontonationalandinternationalstandards.

16

school were not as polished as they should have been indeed, what I needed
instead was more regimented, good old fashioned memorization of times tables
and algorithms. Despite being labeled a gifted student and scoring well on
my state exams, my math skills at that time would not have been sufficient for
me to pass the SHSAT. Fortunately, my parents recognized my deficiencies and
hired a private tutor to get me up to speed a privilege that not every student
is granted, and one that should not be necessary to pass the SHSAT. But my
elementary school, despite being rated as among the top ten percent in NYC
public schools and my testing well on exams, did not properly teach me the
basic, fundamental skills needed to test into a specialized high school.
Many fellow students I know both those who test into a specialized high
school, and those who did not; those whose parents could afford test prep, and
those who could not have told me the same thing: that their schools peddled
soft curriculums that may have bolstered grades or served their schools
specific agenda, but failed to teach them any substantive skills. Furthermore,
the curricula vary wildly from school to school: there are supposedly uniform
teaching materials, and there are various benchmarks for each grade (i.e. by
5th grade, a student is expected to multiply and divide fractions), but each
school and its principal is granted a degree of autonomy that allows them to
decide how those benchmarks are reached, and how the necessary materials
are taught. The resulting scene is reminiscent of the Wild West: get your test
scores and benchmarks through whatever means necessary, with the actual
teaching of skills being essentially optional.
The best solution would be to implement a set of core curricula and
standards that would apply to all NYC public schools, specifically elementary
schools. The teaching of basic skills reading, writing, math absolutely needs
to be improved, and every school seems to have its own haphazard convictions
on how to achieve that. A well-designed core curriculum would help ensure that
students are learning the same materials, and thus be on a more level playing
field. However, there should not only be one curriculum, nor should there be
only one set of standards. To do so would be to ignore a fundamental truth of
17

NYC schools: as it stands, different schools have different circumstances. Some


schools in Queens might have more immigrant students and thus an increased
need for reading and writing instruction, for instance; some Manhattan schools
might have students with poor math students. It is not our job to speculate why
those students have their particular deficiencies; it is only important to
recognize that they exist. To institute one curriculum for all schools is foolhardy,
a waste of everyones time and resources, and doesnt end up teaching
students the skills they need how does a native English speaker benefit from
a curriculum that also must cater to immigrants?
Instead, there should be a more nuanced set of standards for each
school. For instance, the reading abilities of a schools students should be
graded from 1 to 5 1 representing extremely poor, and 5 representing
above average. There should be a NYCDOE mandated curriculum for each
numeric grade value that is, a school receiving a 1 in reading should have a
curriculum that focuses on remediating and catching up to a grade of 3, while a
school receiving a 5 in reading is assigned a more advanced curriculum that fits
the skills of that specific school. And what if a school happens to have an
extremely literate student body well versed in Dickens, but cant do long
division to save their lives, or vice versa? Well, then the a school would receive
a 5 for reading, and a 1 or a 2 for math that way, a school addresses specific
needs and is granted the greatest possible flexibility in playing to their
strengths while addressing their weaknesses, at once adhering to a more
uniform set of NYCDOE standards while also avoiding curriculums redundant to
a specific school.

IV. Conclusion
The abolishment of the SHSAT is unnecessary. It would constitute a failed
experiment along the lines of Lowell High Schools ill-fated diversity index.
The problem of low minority representation at specialized high schools is a
clear and present point of concern, but cannot be properly addressed through

18

social engineering in the form of lowering test standards or instituting holistic


admissions as stated before, these are far too-simple, rosy solutions to a
deeply entrenched set of issues.
Instead, better-implemented and better-devised school curriculums
instead represent a far better solution. They address the problem of inequitable
education standards by watering the root, rather than snipping the plant after it
has already bloomed. How does one water the root? [. . . . . omitted . . . . .]
As it currently stands, NYC public school curricula are far too all inclusive
in the pursuit of being equitable a noble goal to be sure, but one that is
misguided and ends up hurting our students far more than it helps them. It is a
completely understandable problem: the NYC public school system is the most
populous and complex out of any major city, and poses a demographic
challenge unlike that of any other city. Its hard to tend to schools on a micro
level, whether its providing funding or focusing on a schools needs. Thats
why a more statistics-oriented system has been championed: it allows
examination of the system from a more efficient macro perspective.
Unfortunately, the macro perspective, while more encompassing and covering
more ground, leaves out much of the nitty gritty involved in education and
frequently lumps students of different academic backgrounds under one
umbrella. If a school in the Bronx is bad at math or reading and writing, that is
not to say the students are intrinsically less intelligent or committed to learning
rather, they simply face a different set of circumstances, and come into
school with varying levels of knowledge.
It is up to the NYCDOE to equalize the playing field by instituting core
curricula without penalizing and diluting standards for students who are further
developed in their skills again, this is to merely recognize the reality that a
school in Manhattan faces a different set of skills from that of one in Staten
Island, not necessarily for reasons of race or socioeconomics. Throw all
politically charged talk of the specialized high school admissions being

19

equitable, and an unvarnished picture begins to emerge: most students suffer


from a lack of quality instruction starting from elementary school, one of the
most formative and important periods in education, which cripples their ability
to perform well on state tests and thus qualify for and pass the SHSATs. Many of
those who do pass the SHSATs do so despite their lack of a quality education in
elementary school, and receive ancillary tutoring and preparation simply to
make up for the skills that the NYCDOE should be responsible for teaching
them, not private tutors. Unfortunately, the glaring lack of reading, writing, and
math skills in NYC public students has only truly been given attention in the last
few years after being obscured for years prior: many students carry a false
sense of confidence from having their artificially boosted good grades, despite
not really having learned much. I know it was a shock for me when I realized I
couldnt do basic math despite being told I was gifted my whole life. NYC needs
to step up its responsibility to educating its students properly from an early
age, and only then will the SHSAT problem begin to improve by itself, with no
legal actions or diversity indexes necessary.

20

Annex

Fig. A: Stuyvesants racial composition

Fig. A-1: A different graphical representation of Stuys student demographic

21

Fig. B: Bronx High School of Sciences racial composition

Fig. C: Brooklyn Technical High Schools racial composition

22

Fig. 1-1: New York City ELA scores still fall short of those of the total public.

Fig. 1-2: A higher percentage of students have passed the ELA state tests but
the minimum standards for passing the tests have concurrently been lowered.

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Lower passing standards diminish the accomplishment of the more students


passing the test.

Fig. 2-1: The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a federally


administered test measuring performance; New York City has not tested as well
as the rest of the U.S.

24

Fig. 3-1: A graph showing the results for the OECD Programme for International
Assessment, a test measuring international education standards. The U.S.
ranks among the bottom half of the pack (right between Japan and Iceland).

25

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27

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