As Council mulls diversity bills, elite high school alumni groups defend admissions policies

The New York City Council’s next education meeting is 10 days away, but one agenda item has already touched off a formal repudiation.

Alumni groups from eight specialized high schools are urging city lawmakers to reject a symbolic vote in support of a state bill that would eliminate the single-test admission standard for those schools, which critics blame on the falling number of black and Hispanic students who attend them. The Council can’t change the schools’ admissions policies, but the resolution of support will be discussed at a Dec. 11 education hearing on school diversity.

On Monday, the same day that details of the hearing became public, the alumni groups sent a five-page letter to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, telling her to vote ‘no’ on the resolution. The group, called the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations, writes that getting rid the test-based admission standard “will likely lead to less diversity, not more, at these schools,” and could result in favoritism in the student selection process. They pointed to the demographics of the city’s more than 100 screened high schools, which use multiple admissions criteria and serve a larger proportion of white students than the eight specialized schools.

The hearing will be the first to put a spotlight on the city’s enrollment policies under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January vowing to tackle social inequities. De Blasio has joined with the United Federation of Teachers to back the state bill.

Though the eight specialized high schools that use the Specialized High School Admissions Test serve relatively few of the city’s high schoolers, they have become the focus of recent school-diversity debates, though the city has faced broader criticism this year for the lack of diversity within its schools.

The test-only admissions policies were enshrined in state law in 1971 for Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School. The city has since created five more schools with the same admissions policy.

Supporters of the proposed state law say the test-only admissions method disproportionately hurts black and Hispanic students, who last year made up just 3 percent of the 952 students accepted into Stuyvesant. A single test isn’t a reliable way to assess whether students can handle the high academic expectations of a specialized high school, they say, especially because many students can’t afford the preparation classes designed to boost scores.

To improve diversity, the alumni groups proposed several measures: Allow more time for students who didn’t take test prep classes, expand programs designed to better prepare students in underserved communities, and administer free practice tests to all seventh graders.

Also up for debate at the City Council hearing are two pieces of legislation that would require the city to take additional action. One would require the Department of Education to issue annual reports with demographic information about each school and district, including data about students’ race and family income. The second would call on the city to prioritize diversity when officials rewrite school zones, create new schools, and change admissions policies.