In New York City, a bustling, vibrant city filled to the brim with innovation, excitement, and diversity, bright-eyed, intelligent children vie for a spot at one of the city’s nine specialized high schools: Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, The Bronx High School of Science, The Brooklyn Latin School, Brooklyn Technical High School, High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College of New York, High School of American Studies at Lehman College, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, Staten Island Technical High School and Stuyvesant High School. It’s no wonder why, as these schools promise to be life-changing if a student is accepted. In research among Stuyvesant graduates, it was found that many kids who were poor and working-class ended up attending selective colleges and went on to do well professionally, all thanks to their superior high school education.
Stuyvesant High School (Image Source: New York Post)
Recently, the admission processes of these schools have come under fire in recent years from the city government and community members. With the exception of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, entrance into these schools is determined solely by the results of the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). Eighth-graders in any NYC middle school can decide to take the exam. Students are ranked by their scores and then matched with their choice of high school based on space available.
The controversy centers around the lack of Black and Hispanic students in these specialized high schools. More than 27,500 students took the SHSAT last year. Of those, 18% were white while 30% were Asian, but Asian test-takers earned over half of the offers and white students received 29% of the offers. Meanwhile, 24% of test-takers were Hispanic and 20% were Black, but those students only received around 10% of the offers. These statistics are startling considering that Black and Hispanic students account for two-thirds of students citywide.
Student Enrollment Demographics Over The Years (Image (Source: wNYC)
To better reflect the city’s demographic in these high schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio is in favour of scrapping the test, proposing instead to admit the top 7% of students at each city middle school. While this measure would diversify the schools, many people oppose it for two main reasons. First, supporters of the SHSAT argue that the test is unbiased and that removing it would hurt Asian and white students. Second, they argue that removing the test would lower the academic rigor of these elite schools.
One way the city is trying to address this is through the Discovery Program. In 2019, the city decided to set aside 20% of the seats in elite high schools for select low-income students who scored below the cutoff. These students had to attend a summer program before classes started. While the intent to diversify the schools was certainly good, most of the offers still went to Asian students; Asian students received 54% of offers while Black and Hispanic students received 30% of offers.
Mayor de Blasio Announcing the Discovery Program (Image Source: NYC Gov)
If we can understand the cause of the problem, then we can implement a policy that will push real, effective change. Around three decades ago, there were sizable numbers of Black and Latino students. In fact, Black and Hispanic students at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech accounted for around 10 percent, 22 percent and 51 percent of the student population, respectively. Clearly, something had to have changed for this demographic shift to occur.
According to an article from The Atlantic, one reason why this happened is because of a broader educational shift in the early 1990s that limited opportunities for high-achieving Black and Hispanic students. Before the shift occurred, many middle schools in New York City had honours programs and children in those programs received a good education in a rigorous environment. By connecting smart children who pushed one another, these programs created children who tested well and ended up at specialized high schools. However, when the city government did away with this system of gifted programs, many top students at disadvantaged schools did not receive the opportunities they used to. Now, instead of tracking in schools, there is tracking between schools. Many parents enroll their children in schools that are not the ones they are zoned for. This makes the undesirable schools perpetually underfunded and weak academically.
The racial disparities present in NYC’s elite high schools are a symptom of a larger, system-wide problem. If every child has equal access to a rigorous education when they are young, there will be changes in the demographics at these elite high schools, without the elimination of the SHSAT.