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'Keep the test!' A debate flares over exam-based public high schools.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
Students arrive for the first day of school at Stuyvesant High School in New York, in this 2015 photo. The school is among New York City's specialized high schools, where admission has long depended on a student's exam scores.

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New York City is roiled over a question that challenges other US cities, too: Should top-level public high schools be reserved for students with the highest scores on a test, or should the doors be opened wider to underrepresented groups by looking at other measures? Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office recently proposed ditching the admissions test for access to the city’s specialized high schools. Nearly 7 in 10 students in the school district are African-American or Latino, but they hold only 1 in 10 places in these schools. The new plan feels like a penalty to many who have been preparing for the exam. But some experts say “excellence versus equity” is a false framing for the debate, and note that test scores are hardly a perfect measure of merit. The discussion is prompting calls for more specialized high schools, as well as changing the approach to gifted education. The current system makes people feel as if they have to “fight for a small piece of pie,” says Jo-ann Yoo of the Asian American Federation in New York. “Why can’t we bake more pies?”

This is Part 3 of Learning Together, an occasional series on efforts to address segregation. See Part 1  and Part 2.

Why We Wrote This

An uproar over access to prestigious high schools seems to pit high-scoring Asian-Americans against high-potential African-Americans and Latinos. The deeper issue: How to define merit in a way that's fair and inclusive.

The chant was not what you’d expect when hundreds of people march in protest: “Keep the test!”

The crowd gathered outside Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office June 15, angry at his proposal to ditch the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) – the sole determinant for admissions to eight of the city’s most prestigious public high schools.

For years, civil rights advocates have been pushing for a change to the test, which Mayor de Blasio described as “a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence” in an oped announcing the new proposal.

Why We Wrote This

An uproar over access to prestigious high schools seems to pit high-scoring Asian-Americans against high-potential African-Americans and Latinos. The deeper issue: How to define merit in a way that's fair and inclusive.

The ensuing debate has turned on the question of how to fairly distribute the scarce commodity of seats in these celebrated schools. One underlying concern: Nearly 7 out of 10 students in the school district are African-American or Latino, but they hold only 1 out of 10 places in these schools.

While New York is unique in relying solely on one test, the long-simmering disagreements over definitions of merit, excellence, and equity resonate more broadly. Selective public high schools exist in dozens of states from Virginia to Illinois.

The consideration of racial diversity in admissions is front and center again on the national stage as well. Harvard University is facing a lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian-Americans. And on Tuesday, the US Departments of Education and Justice announced a rollback of a variety of Obama-era guidance around affirmative action.

Exam schools are often a source of pride for a community – boasting high rates of college attendance and alumni who give the schools a starring role in their American dream stories.

Many selective schools have attempted, successfully at times, to reflect the diversity of their districts. In some cases, courts forced them to adopt desegregation plans. But as the tide has shifted away from desegregation enforcement, civil rights advocates say, a growing number of public schools have admissions processes that perpetuate racial and socioeconomic stratification.

After recommendations from a task force, de Blasio and New York Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza proposed to draw the top 7 percent of students from each middle school, based on grades and scores on statewide tests. But for some of the eight high schools, dropping the current entrance exam would require an act of the state legislature, which won’t reconvene until 2019.

In the meantime, starting in the fall of 2019, 20 percent of seats at the specialized schools will be assigned to disadvantaged students from high-poverty schools who score just shy of the cutoff score on the SHSAT. This will expand the city’s Discovery Program, which provides a transitional summer course for such students.

That would immediately increase the projected number of middle schools represented by more than 100, and would raise the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers to attend to about 16 percent, de Blasio said.

New plan stirs criticism

But the plan feels like a penalty to many who have been preparing for the exam. Some Asian-Americans – the largest group taking the test and enrolling in the specialized high schools – say they feel targeted.

Last Sunday, Maggie Qiu took her two elementary-school aged children on a hot subway ride to a screening of a documentary about the SHSAT.

“In Chinese culture, the most important thing, the number one thing, the first thing, is our children’s education,” said Ms. Qiu, an immigrant still working to master English.

Her son Daniel is a seventh-grader at a lower Manhattan middle school, and he’s trying to prepare for the test. “It’s kinda stressful,” Daniel said, standing with his mom and younger sister outside The First Chinese Baptist Church in Chinatown.

Asian-Americans hold diverse viewpoints on these issues. “A lot of us who do social justice work agree there needs to be … more opportunity for the black and Latino kids to get up to these schools.… But we’re very resentful that we are being pitted against other communities of color,” says Jo-ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation in New York, in a phone interview. “A lot of the Asian-American kids who go to these specialized high schools are from low-income families.”

By one poverty measure used in New York City policymaking, Asian-American New Yorkers live in poverty at the same rate as Hispanic New Yorkers, nearly 26 percent. 

Some critics of the New York proposal worry that the academic rigor and achievement culture established at these high schools could be in jeopardy.

Anticipating such objections, de Blasio wrote: “Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative.” 

Supporters of affirmative action agree. “There is no evidence that an affirmative policy will lower the quality,” says Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The Boston Latin exam school, for instance, didn’t lose quality or prestige when about a third of seats were designated for African-American and Latino students for two decades – before being stopped by a court case.

Equity and excellence should not be framed as mutually exclusive, supporters say.

“Test scores do not measure merit,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest in Boston. “When it is the primary factor for selection, you spark a test-prep arms race.”

Recent high school graduate Jorge Morales says he and several friends did well in a New York middle school where many of the students are from low-income families that don’t speak English. They tried to prepare on their own for the SHSAT, but didn’t score well enough. Still, “they ended up in other really good high schools and are going into really good universities, so they definitely had the potential to succeed at those specialized high schools,” says Mr. Morales in a phone interview.

He’s headed to the University of Rochester, and he’s the policy team leader at Teens Take Charge, a student-led group that advocated for a plan similar to the mayor's proposal. The goal, he says, is not only to make access more equitable, but also to make the high schools better by diversifying them.

Seeking long-term solutions

People with ties to the exam schools come down on both sides. Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Association, argues that the exam should stay. The focus should be on improving preparation and expanding the Discovery Program.

Ted Chang says he and his wife, a graduate of an exam school, are for the mayor’s plan even though their children attend school in a neighborhood that would end up sending fewer students. “There's something truly ironic about getting the alumni associations of our most popular science schools to coalesce around a test that social scientists have concluded is a very weak and inaccurate measure of academic potential,” he writes in an email.

But without a test, selective high schools may struggle to differentiate between the most advanced students, says Hilde Kahn, former board member of the foundation of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) in Fairfax, Va., and the mother of three graduates.

In addition to an admissions test, TJ has tried using various factors, including teacher recommendations, diversity goals, and indicators of passion for math and science, Ms. Kahn notes.

Local districts have tried to prepare a wider range of students in earlier grades. But those moves failed to significantly increase the enrollment of black, Latino, and low-income students. The majority of students at TJ are Asian-American, and only about 1 percent come from low-income families.

“If we don’t provide more outside of school for kids who don’t have those opportunities at home, they have an additional disadvantage,” Kahn says of the enrichment needed to prepare for advanced math and science. “They need the tools.”

That’s also why many voices in the New York debate want changes to specialized high school admissions to be discussed in a larger context. 

Some in New York have suggested adding more specialized high schools, as well as changing the approach to gifted education. Similar questions in Boston have led the district to begin phasing out third-grade testing and tracking of students into “advanced work” classes – in favor of a system called Excellence for All.

The current system makes people feel they have to “fight for a small piece of pie. Why can’t we bake more pies?” says Ms. Yoo.

This is Part 3 of Learning Together: an occasional series on efforts to address segregation. See Part 1  and Part 2.

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