First Person

Failing The Stuyvesant Test

In 1971, the New York State Legislature passed the Hecht-Calandra bill, requiring that rank-ordered results from a single test determine admission to the city’s elite high schools: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. According to New York University professor Floyd Hammack, writing in the American Journal of Education, support for the bill was closely tied to racially-charged controversies over community control and was intended to protect these elite institutions through a mandated exam. The results have been devastating.

Today, black and Latino students attend Stuyvesant and its sister schools at levels far below those of other racial groups.   In 2010-11, the most recent year with published State Report Card data, out of a total enrollment of 3,288 students Stuyvesant High School had only 40 black students (1 percent) and 94 Latino students (3 percent, none with limited English proficiency). This means the school had only about 10 black and 24 Latino students out of over 800 students per grade level. The problem starts with the rank-order, test-only admissions policy. While over 12,000 black and Latino students took the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test last year, only 5 percent of black test takers and 6.7 percent of Latino test-takers were offered admission to any specialized high school.

New York City’s use of a single, rank-ordered test to determine admission is unique in American education. According to Chester Finn, who was appointed as assistant U.S. Secretary of Education by the first President Bush, of hundreds of competitive high schools across the country, only New York City employs a system where a single test means everything. I know of no American college or university, no matter how selective, that uses such a system. Even in New York, many other selective high schools rely on multiple measures that require students to demonstrate their qualifications across dimensions — not just a single, coachable test.

In bringing its federal complaint against the Specialized High Schools admissions policy, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (to which I am an unpaid advisor) is challenging both the effect of the test in diminishing opportunities for bright black and Latino youth and shining a light on the arbitrary nature of the admissions process. How peculiar, to have the state legislature determine these procedures! Normally, such technical matters are left to educators versed in psychometrics and professional judgment. Here, a 40 year-old law trumps everything we know and otherwise practice about academic merit.

That SHSAT scores are highly sensitive to test prep is beyond dispute. Rigid rank ordering creates hair’s-breadth distinctions without substance. The test has never been validated to determine its consistency with actual high school performance so the city Department of Education cannot even demonstrate a relationship between admitted students’ test results and those of others who might have been more successful meeting elite high schools’ demands. Discounting the use of middle school grades, portfolios of student work, and (after substantiated widespread cheating at Stuyvesant) character diminishes merit to a narrow gauge of tutored test-taking proficiency on a given day in an adolescent’s life.

Who would rely on such a system in 2012 if it wasn’t for the momentum of a law passed in 1971? Use of the SHSAT as the sole criterion for admission to New York’s elite high schools perpetuates a political moment long since past. It is educationally, legally, and socially indefensible. It creates an artificial barrier to thorough decision-making, promotes racial isolation, and flies in the face of every other system used in the United States to assess academic merit.

Like any such barrier to opportunity, sole reliance on the SHSAT should fall. A judicious set of admissions criteria can assure both access and excellence. The matter is directly in the hands of the state legislature and, now, the U.S. Department of Education.  The main stumbling block to reform, however, is Mayor Bloomberg’s “let them eat cake” declaration that the current system is somehow fair, though his argument runs contrary to other merit selection processes used by his administration.

If the mayor ends his opposition, the legislature could do its work free of the political pressures that gave rise to the original statutory imposition of Hecht-Calandra. The complainants and their supporters in the current action, including leading Asian-American advocacy organizations, are not asking for anything more than a rational system of multiple measures that will assess applicants for specialized high school placement that includes, but is not limited to, the SHSAT.

In the end, this is a call for a political solution to a politically created problem. New York is debased by its continued adherence to an irrational system that perpetuates racial bias.

David C. Bloomfield, an attorney, is professor of Educational Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is an unpaid adviser to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed a complaint about the Specialized High Schools Admission Test with the U.S. Dept. of Education Office of Civil Rights.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.