Debate over SHSAT divides candidates for public advocate during NY1 debate

The mayor’s plan to eliminate the single exam used to determine admissions at the city’s specialized high schools divided candidates for public advocate during a debate on NY1 Wednesday night.

Only three of the hopefuls for the office — for which there will be a special election on Feb. 26 — expressed support for Mayor de Blasio’s plan to scrap the Specialized High School Admissions Test in an effort to diversify the elite schools.

The other seven pushed for other methods of increasing the share of black and Hispanic students at the schools, which make up 70 percent of students citywide but only 10 percent of enrollment at the vaunted schools.

The candidates don’t have a say in the outcome of the mayor’s proposal, which relies on a change to state law. But if the eventual winner doesn’t support the plan, the optics could be a challenge for the mayor.

Among the supporters of the plan, New York Assemblyman Michael Blake said some in the Asian community — whose students make up 62 percent of the schools’ enrollment — have a “very real concern” about the plan. But he still feels “something has to change” to increase the diversity at the schools, and he believes adding multiple measures for admissions is an answer.

“I’m a kid that did very well in school, but I struggled on standardized tests,” Blake said. “Should my future be determined by how I do in three hours? Absolutely not”

Also supporting the mayor were Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell and activist Nomiki Konst, who said she supports tossing the exams because it “favors families who have means.”

“Families who have more resources usually, unfortunately do better on these tests,” she said, “because it requires a tremendous amount of preparation.”

The candidates who oppose the mayor’s plan didn’t dispute that there was a racial imbalance in the schools but felt other tactics might be better for addressing it. Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said she opposes a single exam and would prefer subsidies for test preparation, but she was opposed to how de Blasio came up with his proposal.

“I don’t believe the way this decision has been arrived at — with lack of community input — is the way to make decisions in the city,” she said.

Assemblyman Ron Kim said there is a misconception that the Asian students at the schools are privileged when in fact many speak English as a second language or come from low-income families.

“Racially balancing a couple of schools does not equate to racial equality,” he said. “That takes work.”

Several candidates supported creating more specialized schools beyond the eight that exist. City Council member Rafael Espinal said, “We need to make sure we have a Stuyvesant two. Why can’t we have a Brooklyn Tech two?”

And Councilman Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Tech graduate, said he supported more access points and criteria for admission — but that, for him, the test was a lifesaver. “My nicknames in school were ‘needs improvement’ and ‘promotion in doubt,’” he said. “If they had used any other criteria … I would not have got into it.”