City endorses legislative push to diversify elite high schools

The de Blasio administration is endorsing a renewed push to change how the city’s most elite public schools accept students.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña backed a bill on Monday that would require the city’s specialized high schools to use more than a single test score as their student admissions criteria, an effort grounded in the administration’s desire to increase diversity within the eight schools and reduce the emphasis on testing.

“As the Chancellor has said before, a student is more than the result of one exam,” Devora Kaye said in a statement.

The endorsement comes just hours after state lawmakers unveiled a bill at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters that would allow the Specialized High School Admissions Test to count alongside attendance, class grades, and state exam scores in admissions decisions. It was also the first clear signal of how the city will move forward with de Blasio’s campaign promise to change the admissions standards, since de Blasio and Fariña have offered few details about preferred alternatives in their first months in office.

“We cannot have a dynamic where some of our greatest educational options are only available to people from certain backgrounds,” de Blasio said in April.

With just days left in the state legislative sessions, the efforts are mostly symbolic. Even the bill’s sponsor, Simcha Felder, who chairs the Senate’s New York City education subcommittee, acknowledged that passage might have a better chance next year.

Critics of the single-test standard have long protested that smart students who don’t have access to high-quality elementary or middle schools, or who can’t afford pricey test-preparation programs, are at a disadvantage. And many of the specialized schools, including Stuyvesant High School and Staten Island Technical High School, are among the high schools that perennially serve the lowest number of black and Hispanic students in the city.

The specialized high schools enroll relatively few black and Hispanic students, a racial gap that has widened at some of the schools in recent years. This year, 11 percent of offers to specialized schools went to black and Hispanic students, even though they represent nearly 70 percent of the city’s public school student population. At Stuyvesant High School, for instance, just 3 percent of seats were offered to black and Hispanic students.

But the schools have many defenders who say the system is a bastion of egalitarianism.

“The advantage of using the test is that it eliminates favoritism and offers every child, in a simple way, to get in,” said Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which opposes the legislation.

A single-test admission system for the city’s specialized high schools has been used, and criticized, for decades. The admissions process for the city’s top two high schools was enshrined in state law in 1971, and lawmakers eventually added one more school, Brooklyn Technical.

The city controls the admissions requirements at five of the city’s eight specialized high schools, but officials have said they are waiting for the state to change the law to move forward with their own policy changes. Fariña has said she has already been meeting with principals from the specialized high schools, an area of admissions policies that the administration most wants to change.

The proposed legislation would require all eight schools to use a multiple-measure approach. A similar bill was introduced two years ago, but never won support from the Bloomberg administration.

Union officials also called on the city to pour money into a summer program to better prepare disadvantaged students who traditionally struggle on the exam.

On Monday, UFT President Michael Mulgrew noted that the change would shift the admissions systems similar to those at top high schools nationwide.

“If it’s good enough for Harvard and Yale, it should be good enough for the students of New York City,” Mulgrew said. “The idea that we are the anomaly in this country, where we use one single exam as the only criteria for … whether they get into these schools or not, is wrong.”

A backlash against testing has spurred some of the most recent criticism. Adriano Espaillat, a state senator running for Congress, said he sponsored the bill because the SHSAT was part of a “high-stakes testing model” that caused too much stress for families and children.

The proposed legislation was met with skepticism from many students, teachers, and alumni from specialized high schools. Supporters of the single-test approach say it is the fairest way to assess whether a student can handle the rigor of going to the city’s most demanding high schools, where high expectations and a culture of competition are pervasive.

Cary said that Brooklyn Tech’s alumni are open to reviewing new admissions criteria for the schools, including whether the admissions tests give students who prepare for the test a leg up. But he said nothing should be done until proposed changes are discussed publicly.

Tesa Wilson, whose daughter is a sophomore at Stuyvesant, noted that changes to the admissions system don’t address the educational inequities that emerge earlier in a student’s life.

“If you’re looking to do advanced work in high school, that’s a trajectory you need to be on starting in sixth grade,” said Wilson, who is also the president of District 14’s Community Education Council. “Most parents, they’re not even thinking about high school placement until eighth grade and by then it is too late. You’ve already missed the bus.”

At Stuyvesant on Monday, students were split on the admissions issue.

“I think it would have a positive effect for people who can’t afford tutoring,” said Elias Saric, a sophomore. “Lots of people just get in because they have money for tutoring. But if you can perform well in school and be involved in the community, that doesn’t involve money, but it shows your positive qualities.”

Others said Stuyvesant was more diverse than it appears, and its student body had a high proportion of first-generation immigrants from Asian countries.

Joanna Pan, a sophomore, said she personally liked an admissions policy that would add more diversity,

“Personally, I think that it’s better, but honestly, for Stuy you should get a higher test score to get in here because the workload is way too much. Even if they can help the community, it doesn’t mean that they’re able to pass all of the grades,” she said.

There was also fear that changing the admissions standards would affect the school’s overall quality and negatively affect other student minority groups. “Asian immigrants—who make up the majority of the school’s population—would be indirectly discriminated against,” said Jack Cahn, a senior.

Assembly Member Karim Camara, one of the bill’s sponsors, said those fears were misguided.

This is not about watering down the standards, it’s not about making it subjective, so teachers or principals pick their favorite students,” said Camara. “This is not about ensuring a certain percentage of students of any ethnic group. This is about identifying students or merit, and again multiple measures is really the only way to activate that.”

Sources said that they did not expect the bill to pass during the last couple of weeks of the legislative session, and the bill was intended to apply pressure to New York City lawmakers whose constituents might push back against efforts to eliminate the current admissions system.

“We will discuss it with our members,” said Mike Whyland, a spokesman for Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Want the latest in New York City education news? Follow Chalkbeat on Facebook or @ChalkbeatNY on Twitter.