Sorting the Students

Black alumni of specialized high schools: SHSAT needs scrutiny, not just defenders

A group of black alumni of the city’s specialized high schools say the alumni coalition calling to retain the current admissions system doesn’t fully speak for them.

In a letter sent to Chalkbeat, members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative say they want the Specialized High School Admissions Test to face new scrutiny, not just be defended. Mayor Bill de Blasio and civil rights groups have pointed to the test, which determines admission to eight of the city’s top high schools, as contributing to the scarcity of black and Hispanic students at those schools.

Just 11 percent of the offers to those eight schools went to black and Hispanic students in 2014, thought they made up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth graders.

De Blasio has backed a state bill that would require the specialized high schools to use more than the single test score to make admissions decisions. The City Council education committee is poised to vote on a symbolic measure of support of that bill this month, sparking the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations to release a five-page letter to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito telling her to vote “no” on the resolution.

In their letter, the black alumni group doesn’t say the single-test method should be abandoned, and joins the Coalition in asking for stepped-up recruitment efforts directed at minority students. But the group reiterates concerns about the test’s content, including that it doesn’t reflect middle-school curriculums.

“In light of these issues, we wonder why the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations is defending the current SHSAT, instead of urging the City’s Department of Education to insure that it is fair?” the letter asks. “Like the Coalition, we believe that using a test can guarantee an admissions system free of favoritism and bias, but we are not certain that the current SHSAT offers that.”

Here’s the Diversity Initiative’s letter:

The members of Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative and other alumni and friends who support our goal of increasing the number of Black and Latino students enrolled at the city’s specialized high schools are pleased that we and the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations are in agreement that increased resources need to be devoted to outreach and improving educational quality citywide, and that the Discovery Program needs to be reinstated at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science High Schools. We would go further and demand better schools, and improved efforts to identify and provide an enriched and accelerated education to talented students in every neighborhood, and not simply increased access to test prep. We would also urge the Department of Education to specifically target the Discovery and DREAM-SHSI programs to students from communities currently underrepresented at city’s specialized high schools. Like the Coalition, we believe that using a test can guarantee an admissions system free of favoritism and bias, but we are not certain that the current SHSAT offers that.

As far as we know, the current SHSAT has never been validated. It is deeply concerning that biases inherent in its scoring methods — most notably, an acknowledged preference for the “uneven genius” — may themselves provide an advantage to certain groups of students. Additionally, the inclusion of certain question types, scrambled paragraphs and logic questions, which are unfamiliar to most school children provide an advantage to students who have the benefit of private prep. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is inconsistent with notions of basic fairness that the SHSAT assesses knowledge of concepts beyond the scope of the standard middle school curriculum. This disconnect between what most students have been taught, and what they are being tested on helps explain why some public middle schools send hundreds of students to specialized high schools each year while most public middle schools send none. We believe the SHSAT should be challenging, and measure students’ critical thinking skills, and their ability to apply concepts, but it should be aligned with what children have been taught. All public middle schools should have the same capacity to prepare students for success on the SHSAT and admission to the city’s top public high schools, not just a handful. In light of these issues, we wonder why the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations is defending the current SHSAT, instead of urging the City’s Department of Education to insure that it is fair?

Regardless of whether admission to the city’s oldest specialized high schools continues to be based on a single test or permits consideration of other relevant factors, we need to be sure that whatever test utilized is fair. Please join us and other concerned alumni in asking the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations to establish that the SHSAT is fair. We ask that you refrain from signing their petition of support for the SHSAT until we are assured that any test used as part of the admissions process is fair to all test takers.

change is coming

City may consider more than just test scores in controversial Upper West Side integration proposal

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul, right, has proposed a middle school integration plan.

This week’s meeting to discuss an integration proposal for Upper West Side middle schools was already expected to be controversial. But it could get even more heated, with the city planning to present an alternative approach, leaders said.

An education department spokeswoman said a “new scenario” for integrating District 3 middle schools will be presented at a Community Education Council meeting on Wednesday. Under the current proposal, which has drawn scorn from some parents, a quarter of seats at every middle would be offered to students who earn low scores on state tests.

The city may add other factors to mix, including whether a student is poor or attended an elementary school with many other needy students, according to Kristen Berger — a parent who has been leading integration efforts as a member of the local education council. Some of the changes were first reported by NY1. 

“The goal is to refine the plan so that it can be the best one,” she said.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness declined to release any details about the potential changes, saying, “To send it out wide — without any context, or information, or ability to take questions — I don’t know that’s helpful.”

The debate in District 3 has captured nationwide attention after a viral news video showed a crowd of mostly white, middle class parents angrily pushing against the plan at a meeting last month. Since test scores are often tied to a students’ race and class, the proposal has the potential to integrate schools racially, economically, and academically.

It is unclear if adding other factors to the formula would quiet that furor — or how it would impact the plan’s goal of integrating starkly segregated Upper West Side middle schools.

Despite the controversy, there have also been plenty of supporters, including many principals in the district. It’s not known whether school leaders and parents will back the latest changes — especially since a previous proposal to integrate district middle schools based on students’ economic status died after a public backlash.

Though city officials have stressed all along that the outlines of the proposal could change, parent leaders on Monday said they are worried about the murky process and short timeframe. Officials hope to have a plan in place by June, when entering fifth grade families start planning for middle school.

“We are extremely concerned about the timing of this last-minute change,” the local Community Education Council wrote Monday in a joint letter to city officials.

Still, the council notes it is broadly supportive of the city’s diversity goals.

The education council doesn’t have a formal role in proposing or approving any changes to the middle school admissions process, but members have played a leading role in pushing the city to address stark school segregation in an otherwise diverse district. In the council’s letter to the chancellor, parents call on the city to take a more holistic approach, such as providing anti-bias training in District 3 schools and more academic supports, including social workers and bilingual teachers.

“We have a genuine interest in moving the initiative forward,” said Kim Watkins, president of the council. “But we very strongly believe it’s missing some important implementation pieces.”

late addition

Exclusive Center School will join Upper West Side integration push, education department says

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York City education department is based out of Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan.

One of the most exclusive schools on the Upper West Side could be included in a controversial integration plan after all — just a year later.

The apparent reversal regarding the Center School came after the New York Post reported that the school was left out of the proposal being debated in District 3. Under the plan, a quarter of seats at every middle school in the district would be reserved for students who struggle on state tests.

The Center School has become known for enrolling the children of celebrities such as “Sex in the City” star and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, who once argued against a proposal to move the school because she worried it would exacerbate segregation. The Center School serves among the fewest poor students in the district, and last year was almost 60 percent white — almost double the district average.

Yet the Post reported on Sunday that the school was exempt from the integration proposal because it enrolls students starting in fifth grade, instead of sixth. The tabloid also raised questions about how students are admitted there, calling the application process “a mystery.” The school is one of the few citywide that still runs its own admissions, instead of being overseen by the education department.

“They have their completely own, independent rubric which they don’t have to release or justify,” Alina Adams, an education consultant, told the Post. “Nobody knows how kids get into that school.”

The report prompted questions from elected officials. City Councilman Ritchie Torres asked the Department of Investigation and the Human Rights Commission to look into the school’s admissions and why it wasn’t included in the integration plan, the Post reported Monday. And City Councilman Mark Treyger, who heads the education committee, wrote a letter to the chancellor demanding similar answers.

“We need to ensure that all students have the same education opportunities, and that starts by making sure that our schools have transparent application processes,” Treyger wrote.

Many integration advocates have made similar arguments. Critics of the city’s screening process — which allows some schools to pick their students based on factors such as report card grades and attendance — say the system is often confusing and favors parents who have the time and savvy to figure it out.

Since test scores are closely linked to race and class, the District 3 proposal could integrate schools on multiple levels. But it has faced pushback from parents who have come to expect that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — should guarantee families their top choice of middle schools. No changes have been formalized yet, but the district superintendent hopes to have a plan in place for the 2019-20 school year.

Should it take effect, education department spokesman Doug Cohen said it would apply to Center School fifth graders entering in the 2020-21 school year. He added that the department is “working” to bring all middle schools under its centralized process for the next admissions cycle. That includes Center School.

“As part of the transition, the school will begin posting its admissions rubric,” Cohen wrote in an email.