NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson proposes eliminating SHSAT process, and adding new ‘elite’ schools

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is calling for an overhaul of the single-exam admissions process at the city’s specialized high schools, breaking with many of the state’s top political leaders who have either stayed silent or criticized a proposal by the mayor to integrate the schools.

But in recognition of the political challenge of upending admissions to the city’s most prestigious schools, the speaker also wants to create of a new set of “elite” schools with its own competitive admissions criteria, as well as institute a slew of other measures that have been floated by observers on all sides of the integration debate. 

That includes expanding gifted and talented offerings, which some argue are a reliable pipeline into the specialized schools, and also changing how students are admitted to that program. He announced his series of proposals on Thursday in an op-ed in Chalkbeat.

[Read Corey Johnson’s op-ed: The time to act is now on specialized high schools]

“I support the success of all communities, which is why I believe the single test admissions process used to gain admittance to our eight test-based specialized schools must be abolished,” he wrote. “This is not a decision I make lightly, but I believe when tackling tough issues, we must make decisions based on fact, not on emotion or politics.”

Johnson, who is considering a run for mayor in 2021, is the latest politician to respond to the release of admissions data last week showing black and Hispanic students received under 11 percent of offers to specialized schools, despite representing nearly 70 percent of the city’s students. Only seven black students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School out of 895 offers — a statistic that captured national attention.

Those results, Johnson said, “rightly sparked outrage” and have become a “catalyst for serious, systemic change.”

The city has attempted for years to diversify the city’s eight specialized high schools, considered the crown jewels of the school system, without success. Admission to the schools is based on the results of a single exam, the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT.

The debate heated up last year when Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed scrapping the schools’ single-entrance exam, often seen as a barrier to admission for black and Hispanic students and those without access to expensive test prep. Under the mayor’s plan, the exam would be scrapped and replaced by admitting the top 7 percent of students at each middle school, based on multiple academic measures.

Johnson’s plan appears designed to strike a balance between the mayor and critics who say his proposal would displace many working-class Asian students, who currently dominate admissions to specialized schools.

“I want to support those Asian families who have sacrificed and studied under the current system because they see it as a gateway to the American dream,” he wrote. “And I also want to support black and Hispanic families who have sacrificed and studied only to remain excluded under that same system.”

Some elements of Johnson’s proposal echo the calls of integration advocates, including the creation of district-level working groups to craft local diversity plans and the appointment of a monitor in the city’s Human Rights Commission to oversee integration efforts.

Johnson said the City Council will also consider creating a task force to develop new admissions standards for the specialized high schools, with feedback from “parents, students, advocates, educators and experts.” The task force would work with the existing School Diversity Advisory Group, which was appointed last year by the mayor and which Johnson wants to make permanent.

Councilman Mark Treyger, chair of the council’s education committee, will soon hold hearings about the legislation, Johnson wrote.

Jo Ann Yoo, the executive Director of the Asian American Federation, said she was encouraged by the speaker’s call for input from a range of community members. 

“We want to be engaged. We want to be asked: What do you guys want?” she said. “That’s where the anger started, from the engagement process.”

By creating a new crop of selective schools, Johnson may hope to appease families who worry they will lose out on attending an “elite” school. But creating a whole new set of schools that only attract high-performing students will likely exacerbate the city’s already extreme academic segregation. Roughly 15 percent of the city’s high school students attend schools that screen students using criteria such as grades, test scores, and attendance, according to one analysis. Those schools are less likely to enroll black or Hispanic students — or those from low-income families.

The speaker’s proposal to expand gifted and talented programs also presents push-pull tensions: While many observers have called for more access to gifted as a way to prepare black and Hispanic students for specialized high schools, integration advocates say that program only serves to further segregation. Similar to specialized high schools, admission is based largely on a single test, and enrollment is made up mostly of white and Asian students.

In a potential nod to those concerns, Johnson’s proposal calls for admissions changes “to ensure equitable access” to gifted programs. But advocates have instead lobbied for approaches that mix students of different abilities in the same classroom.

Lazar Treschan, youth policy director at the Community Service Society who has studied specialized high schools said he was “thrilled” the speaker was taking on segregation in the elite schools, but questioned elements of his plan.

“The solution to tracking and segregation is not more tracking and segregation,” Treschan said. “The solution is the opposite. The solution is heterogeneous classrooms.”

It’s unclear what kind of reception Johnson’s proposal will get from the mayor and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who have the ultimate authority to open new schools or add gifted programs. De Blasio has teased the idea of adding spots to high-performing high schools, though Carranza has said screened schools, similar to the ones Johnson wants to create, are “antithetical” to public education. Meanwhile, the de Blasio administration has modestly shrunk the number of selective programs and signed off on integration efforts that explicitly eliminate selective admissions.

Jaclyn Rothenberg, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said she had not seen Johnson’s proposal and declined to comment further.

Johnson’s views about the mayor’s specialized high school proposal have been fluid. When de Blasio announced his plan in June, Johnson initially signaled support but last month said the proposal was not rolled out in a “productive” way. He has also discussed interest in creating more specialized high schools, which are now part of his new package of initiatives.

Taking on an issue that many of his colleagues have avoided could set Johnson apart in the race for mayor. But it could also alienate Johnson among many Asian-Americans who have pushed back on de Blasio’s plan, arguing that the single admissions test is race blind and that there must be a focus on improving elementary and middle-school education.

Johnson’s support for scrapping the exam could be important for the mayor. De Blasio’s plan — which requires approval in Albany since the test is enshrined in state laws — had lost momentum until last week’s admissions data release. Since then, state leaders have called for hearings and community forums on the issue.

Matt Gonzales, who advocates for school integration with the nonprofit Appleseed, said it’s “important” to have a high profile politician like Johnson calling for the elimination of the SHSAT. But Gonzales also looked ahead to the uphill battle such a plan faces in Albany.  

“We’ve seen so much waffling by politicians on this, so I’m happy to see that he’s got the political courage to acknowledge this is a problem,” Gonzales said. “I want to know what he’s actually going to do, to lobby to get this done.”