Finally Doing Something about Specialized High School Admissions

The woefully small percentages of black and Hispanic students at the city’s specialized high schools is not a new development, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something to change it. Here’s my suggestion: The Department of Education should adopt a proportional admissions plan for the exam schools that would offer admission to the highest-scoring students from each of the neighborhoods of the city.

An idea whose time has come

In 1995, then-Chancellor Ramon Cortines lamented the declining percentages of black and Hispanic students at the city’s specialized high schools. At the time, the numbers were actually better than they are now: Bronx Science’s enrollment was 10.7% black and 9.2% Hispanic; Stuyvesant’s was 4.8% black and 4.3% Hispanic.

In 1996, ACORN (well before its recent collapse) published a report, entitled “Secret Apartheid II: Race, Regents and Resources,” that analyzed enrollment numbers at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, the two most selective schools. The ACORN analysis revealed that:

  • Private and parochial schools, plus just three districts in Manhattan and Queens with less than 10 percent of all public middle school students supplied over 50 percent of students admitted to Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in 1995.
  • Six districts in the Bronx and Manhattan together contributed less than 1 percent of the 1995 entering classes at the two schools.
  • And nine other community school districts contributed less than 1 percent each.

ACORN found that the districts that sent the fewest students to the elite schools were also the most heavily black and Hispanic. The districts sending the most students to the schools also had the fewest non-white children.

A long-overdue similar analysis conducted today would likely reveal a very similar reality. Clearly, segregation and the unequal educational opportunities that result continue to distort the enrollment profile of the city’s most selective high schools.

What can we learn from Texas?

Our situation is analogous to the situation in Texas when it came to admissions to the state’s elite universities after a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’s affirmative action program for university admissions was unconstitutional. In 1996, fewer than 20 high schools supplied a quarter of the 5519 freshmen at the University of Texas at Austin, and only 40 percent of all high schools in the state sent even a single student. To address this disparity, the state adopted a policy by which students in the top 10 percent at any Texas high school would be admitted to the state university of their choice.

The new policy worked. By 2006, half of the freshman class was composed of students from 104 high schools. And by 2007, more than 900 high schools were sending students to UT-Austin. In a very encouraging development, once high schools realized that their students were being admitted, more students began applying.

There are downsides to the Texas model: High-achieving black and Hispanic students who rank below the top 10 percent at  majority-white schools often do not get admitted to the college of their choice.

Students admitted under Texas’s top 10 percent plan do well. Professor Uri Treisman told me that students admitted under the 10 percent plan who enroll in the College of Natural Sciences frequently need some extra help at the beginning of college but that, afterwards, they do fine. And a study found that black and Hispanic students admitted under the plan performed as well or better than white students ranked significantly lower in their high school classes who also won admission to UT schools.

Implications for New York City

Fifty percent of students taking the specialized high school exam are black or Hispanic. I think it’s safe to assume that most of these test-takers are, by their own, their parents’ and/or their teachers’ estimates considered to be good students and furthermore that they are seriously interested in attending one of the exam schools.

It has become clear that the special institute the DOE conducts to improve the success rates of black and Hispanic students on the exam is not effective at addressing the disproportionate admissions issue. But, on the basis of the results in Texas, we can have some confidence that students admitted under my proposal would be successful in the specialized high schools. They might need some extra help when they first enroll. It would be better by far for the DOE to invest the funds it spends on the institute (without much positive result) in assisting kids who’ve been accepted to the exam schools to succeed.

Judging students by grades or class rank would offer the fairest estimation of their potential, but the 1971 Hecht-Calandra Act mandates that admission to specialized high schools be determined by exam. In addition, the specialized high school test has such a mythical stature in the city that there would surely be an outcry if it were eliminated. In any case, I’m pretty confident that most of the kids from different neighborhoods who do best on the exam will be the kids who have the best grades in the schools they attend. This should be a relatively easy thing for the DOE to test before making any decisions.

The change I’m recommending might require legislative approval, or it could be that the chancellor has the authority to interpret the law in a manner that would allow for the new admissions method I propose. In either case, moving toward proportional admissions from each district is an idea that’s worth careful consideration.

A New York Precedent (Actually a Brooklyn One)

Let me close with a bit of personal history. I completed eighth grade at a Catholic grammar school in Brooklyn in 1961. At that time, just as now, students who wanted to attend a Catholic high school had to take a special exam called the COOP. As I recall, it was not so unlike the test that I took at Brooklyn Tech that same year. Since my mother deeply desired that I attend a Catholic high school, the Tech test was a bit of an insurance policy. In addition, at that time, because the number of diocesan high schools in the Brooklyn diocese (which were much less expensive than the private Catholic schools) was limited, seats were apportioned on the basis of parishes. Each parish got to send its four highest-scoring students.

And that’s what happened to me — I was admitted with three other boys I knew from Saint Michael’s in Sunset Park to Saint Augustine’s in Park Slope. Although it was a long time ago, I don’t recall that very many of my classmates had a hard time with the fairly demanding courses at Saint Augustine’s.

I think we can borrow from that example, and from Texas, to better address what appears to be an issue without a solution.

John Garvey is the former associate dean for collaborative programs at the City University of New York.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.