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.

drinks and debate

What would an equitable high school choice process look like? Chalkbeat readers weigh in.

PHOTO: Stanley Collado
Chalkbeat hosted an event to debate how the high school admissions process could be more fair.

New York City’s choice system is supposed to give every student a shot at attending a top high school. But in reality, low-income students of color are often stuck in low-performing schools.

Last week, Chalkbeat invited a parent and student, a researcher and an admissions advocate, and two education department officials to take part in a public discussion. We wanted to know: When it comes to the high school choice process, what are the barriers separating some students from high-achieving schools — and how can those obstacles be removed?

We want you to join the discussion. Click here or keep reading to learn how.

Two competing schools of thought emerged during the talk, which about 120 people came to watch. On one side, some said the problems revolve around some families’ limited information about how to navigate the time-intensive application process, and solutions should be geared towards improving communication and guidance for families and students.

But others said the problems go much deeper: Students who attend high-needs schools often aren’t prepared to compete for seats in the most exclusive high schools, even as their families often lack the time and resources to help them find other strong alternatives.

“The whole system is flawed and it’s geared to have certain students fail,” said Tanesha Grant, a parent from Washington Heights whose daughter attends Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. “Every child is equal. We make them unequal with the process.’”

After the discussion, audience members — who included people who work in schools and education-oriented nonprofits, along with parents — voted on ways to make the admissions process more fair.

The solution that earned the most votes was reducing or eliminating screened schools, which admit students based on their test scores, interviews and report card grades, among other criteria.

The second most popular solution was providing better information to students and families, perhaps by improving the high school directory or adding more guidance counselors in middle schools who can help guide students through the process.

Many other attendees came up with their own solutions.

Those included: expanding the role of parent coordinators, who are already stationed in schools, to help families understand the process; changing the algorithm that matches students to schools so that diversity is weighed in admissions decisions; and hiring more black and Hispanic teachers who can serve as a welcoming presence when students of color are picking schools. You can find more in the photos.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The audience also submitted dozens of written questions about how the process is working (or not). They wanted to know how much leeway schools get to choose their students, what is being done to help immigrant families understand the process, and how the city can create more high-quality high schools in neighborhoods that lack them.

Now, we want to you to weigh in.

We distilled the audience queries into a handful of questions based on common themes that emerged. We’re hoping to follow up on some of them — but first we want to know which ones are shared by the most readers.

We’d love it if you’d use the form below to vote on which question is also puzzling you — or if there’s another you’d like us to pursue.

Thanks for joining the discussion!

school choice or peer choice?

A school choice quandary: parents care more about who attends a school than about its quality, in NYC study

PHOTO: Cassandra Giraldo

A basic tenet of school choice is that families will choose higher-quality schools when they can, spurring schools to improve in order to compete for students. Bad schools will fail the grueling test of the market, while good ones will thrive.

Now a new study raises questions about this basic premise.

The analysis examines high school choice in New York City, where students in district schools have a bevy of options and can attend schools outside their neighborhood. But families aren’t flocking to the most effective schools — they are looking for schools with higher-achieving students.

“Among schools with similar student populations, parents do not rank more effective schools more favorably,” write researchers Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag Pathak, Jonathan Schellenberg, and Christopher Walters. “Our findings imply that parents’ choices tend to penalize schools that enroll low achievers rather than schools that offer poor instruction.”

The result: school choice programs may incentivize schools to do more to attract students more likely to perform well, not help students learn more.

It’s a strong indictment of the theory behind school choice, though the research — like any single study — is hardly definitive. Prior studies on vouchers and New York City charters have shown that district schools generally see (small) increases in test scores when parents and students have more choices about what school to attend. Charter schools in several states have improved over time, which may be evidence of choice and and competition working.

But the study highlights some of the often-unspoken factors that drive school choice and how schools, in turn, are likely to respond.

Peers trump school quality in the eyes of families

The paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed and was released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines how families of eighth-graders chose public high schools in New York City between fall 2003 and spring 2007.

Because the city allows students to rank many district high schools, and then assigns them one, the researchers have a treasure trove of data to draw from. (The latest analysis does not examine charter or private schools.) The study then connects how students ranked schools to metrics like test scores, high school graduation, and college attendance.

It is true that better schools — defined as schools improving those specific outcomes — are ranked higher, but that seems solely due to the fact that those schools also have higher-achieving students. Comparing schools with similar students, better schools don’t get a boost in parent demand.

“Our findings imply that parents’ choices tend to penalize schools that enroll low achievers rather than schools that offer poor instruction,” the authors write.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is not much evidence that schools that seem to do better with certain groups of kids are more likely to attract those students. In fact, schools that are particularly effective with low-achieving students tend to be especially popular with high-scoring kids.

It’s not clear which interpretation of the results is correct

There are a number of ways to interpret these results.

One, is that families value characteristics — like safety or after-school programs — besides the metrics of school quality used in this study. That said, the study includes measures like high-school graduation and college attendance, that parents and students are likely to care about.

Another hypothesis is that families and students simply don’t have good data on which schools are good.

“Without direct information about school effectiveness … parents may use peer characteristics as a proxy for school quality,” the study suggests. Indeed, there is evidence that families respond to information about school performance, but it’s unclear to what extent they would prioritize sophisticated measures of school quality, even if given that additional data.

Perhaps families are simply more concerned about peers than schools. Families may consider the types of students at a school as a proxy for school success — something that might be deeply ingrained and difficult to overcome. It may also be due to biases, including racism.

This, the authors suggests, has troubling implications for policy.

“If parents respond to peer quality but not causal effectiveness, a school’s easiest path to boosting its popularity is to improve the average ability of its student population,” the paper says. “Since peer quality is a fixed resource, this creates the potential for … costly zero-sum competition as schools invest in mechanisms to attract the best students.”

Want to learn more about NYC high schools? Come to Chalkbeat’s event this Thursday on how to make the high school admissions process more fair. Also be sure to sign up for Chalkbeat’s national and New York newsletters