New York City’s specialized High Schools are highly selective public schools for academically and artistically gifted students. There are nine specialized high schools in New York City. Admission to eight of the schools is based on the score attained on the competitive Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts accepts students based on auditions and reviews of academic records.) Places are awarded to those students who earn the highest scores on the SHSAT, which is offered to all eighth and ninth grade students residing within New York City. Students who qualify may attend the selective high school of their choice. The best known of these schools are the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School.
According to a recent series on the local New York City NBC television affiliate, “a dramatic race gap persists at the city’s most elite public high schools, a product of a single standardized entrance exam that privileges students who have been intensively primed and prepped through expensive private tutoring programs.” The reporters go on to point out that “At Stuyvesant High School, widely viewed as the crown jewels of the top public high schools, just two percent of incoming ninth-graders are black, and 3.5 percent are Hispanic . . . In the general New York City public school population, the two groups comprise a total of 77 percent.”
New York City is divided into “community school districts,” neighborhoods, varying from the wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan and the semi-suburban areas of eastern Queens, to the impoverished Bronx and central Brooklyn areas. The distribution of students qualifying for selective high schools is a measure of the academic quality of science education in their middle and junior high schools and, perhaps, a measure of the family incomes in those neighborhoods. Students in northeastern Queens, near Great Neck, have a good opportunity to learn in a selective high school. Students in the Bronx and Central Brooklyn have none.
An especially curious fact is that 115 of the 843 students admitted to Stuyvesant in a recent year had not attended New York City schools. They came from private schools and the suburbs. Their parents had invested in their elementary and middle school education in expensive private schools so that they could have a free education in one of the nation’s best public high schools.
Selective high schools are the Emerald City of New York City traditional public schools. The yellow brick road leading to them starts with the kindergarten tests for Gifted and Talented programs. But not all children have a chance of even setting out on that road. The city tests only 21 percent of its kindergarten students. The percentage of students in a neighborhood the New York City district thinks it worthwhile to test varies by the income of their parents. In some community school districts 70 percent of the students are tested. In others, as few as seven percent are tested. If instead, say, 70 percent of ALL students were tested, we could estimate that there would be an additional 10,000 students qualifying for the ruby slippers of the city’s Gifted and Talented programs. These additional students would mostly be Black, Hispanic and living in poverty. It is these students, and their peers, whom the system is denying an equal opportunity to learn.
The yellow brick road out of poverty runs through the schools. Unfortunately, that road is blocked by a Tin Man, lacking a heart, who prevents poor children from embarking on that road by restricting the additional resources that flow to students in Gifted and Talented programs to those from prosperous families, and a Cowardly Lion, lacking the courage to do what he must knows is right, maintaining a gatekeeper examination that cannot be passed without expensive private tutoring. Is it then any accident that Stuyvesant is one of the most highly segregated schools in the country, with only two percent of its student body who are Black and three percent Latino? Do we need any more evidence that there is a pattern of segregation from kindergarten through high school in New York City?
Any objective observer would find it highly suspicious that New York City has a system of selective high schools with a gateway examination that cannot be passed without extra tutoring. The New York Department of Education appears to believe that its schools are not good enough for the SHSAT. Doesn’t that seem a bit odd? Perhaps not when we know that many schools in the poorest parts of the city do not offer the courses, like advanced algebra, necessary to even read the questions on the test.
However, this situation, just because it is so egregious, offers an opportunity for fundamental change in the nation’s largest school system.
First, New York City should abolish the SHSAT. That should be done for a number of reasons, not the least being that no child’s future should be determined by a single, high stakes, standardized test that is admittedly not aligned with the curriculum of the schools and blatantly discriminates on the basis of family income.
Instead of the SHSAT, the school district should adopt a system used for college admission in various places around the country: a quota, based on enrollment, from each middle and junior high school. If a school enrolls, say, one percent of the city’s grade eight students, then one percent of the pool of students admitted to the specialized high schools should come from that school. Each school should be permitted to set their own criteria for identifying those students, as who knows students better than their teachers?
What would be the consequences of this innovation? Some schools which now send many students to the selective high schools would send fewer. Every school which now sends no students to the selective high schools would send some. Every student in New York City would have an equal opportunity to learn in some of the best high schools in the nation.
It is possible that parents now willing and able to pay large amounts of money for after-school and Saturday classes for their children from kindergarten through grade eight, and to pay for special “cramming” tutoring in for the SHSAT, will consider moving from neighborhoods where the competition for places will be high to neighborhoods where the schools currently do not sent students to the selective high schools. It is possible that they will put pressure on those schools—and the New York Department of Education—to improve the schools so that their children will have the opportunity to attend a selective high school. It is possible that the Department of Education will do this, will make all its schools places where every child has an opportunity to learn to high standards.
And now we will all join together and sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”