sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City. 

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

Q and A

Here’s what Richard Carranza had to say in his first TV interview as New York City chancellor

Chancellor Richard Carranza was pressed on segregation, testing and metal detectors in schools.

New York City schools chief Richard Carranza has been cramming, if his first media interview since taking over the city’s schools on Monday is any indication.

Carranza spoke with NY1’s Lindsey Christ for about 30 minutes Wednesday, with an empty classroom as a backdrop. She pressed him on some of the most pressing issues facing the city, including school segregation, whether metal detectors belong in schools, and the city’s expensive Renewal program for struggling schools — where Carranza signaled that changes could be coming. He also addressed a gender discrimination lawsuit from his time as the head of San Francisco schools and called boycotts of standardized tests an “extreme reaction.” 

A few times, Carranza acknowledged he is still learning the ropes: Until he arrived in New York City, he had never worked in the country’s largest school system. He comes from Houston, where he was superintendent for less than two years.

Here’s what he had to say in Wednesday’s interview, which you can watch in its entirety here.

On segregation

Carranza is proving to be more frank than his boss — and his predecessor, retired Chancellor Carmen Fariña — on the issues of segregation and integration. Mayor Bill de Blasio has avoided those terms, preferring to speak more broadly about “diversity.” Carranza didn’t mind saying that “segregation and integration” have been issues in every district where he has worked. In Wednesday’s interview, Carranza was asked about his choice of words.

Back to Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court used the word segregation. So it is what it is. I think we get caught up sometimes in the terminology and miss the broader picture. The broader picture is that, if we have a public education system that truly belongs to the public, then every member of that public body — every single student, regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, religious creed — should have access to all — all — opportunities in that system. And if [there is] segregation, then we need to work to end it.

On specialized high schools

New York City’s specialized high schools are some of the most prestigious in the system, but they are also starkly and persistently segregated. Only 10.4 percent of admissions offers for next year’s ninth-grade class went to black and Hispanic students, even though they make up about 70 percent of students citywide. Under de Blasio, the city has tried a number of initiatives to address the problem, but the admissions picture has not budged. Carranza suggested he wanted to see changes — but signaled that he had accepted his boss’s position that state law could be a barrier.

I’m starting to learn about what these issues are… State law notwithstanding, other protocol notwithstanding, how is that OK? From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African American students in a high school. So I’m looking at that, absolutely.

On a gender discrimination settlement from San Francisco

Shortly after Carranza was named chancellor, the New York Daily News uncovered a 2015 gender discrimination lawsuit involving Carranza when he was superintendent of San Francisco schools. The suit, which was settled for $75,000, was filed by a district employee who said she was denied a leadership role during Carranza’s tenure because of her gender and charged he retaliated against her for confronting him about flirting with a woman during a work conference. City Hall told Chalkbeat that officials were aware of the lawsuit but believed the allegations to be false — which Carranza echoed.

It just didn’t happen. It never happened. I’ve been an educator almost 30 years. I’ve worked with thousands of colleagues and there are many people who would talk about my character and who I am … I will stand on my record and I’ll stand on the relationships that I built. But it never happened.

On the city’s long-running investigation into yeshivas

In 2015, the education department said it would investigate whether private yeshivas offer adequate instruction in secular subjects such as math and science. The results of that politically charged investigation have yet to be revealed, and the city hasn’t offered a timeline for when it would be completed. Meanwhile, a new state law seems to hand state education leaders the power to evaluate the schools — rather than the local district. Carranza wouldn’t commit to a timeline to wrap up the city’s investigation, or even promise to finish it.

I haven’t been fully briefed on the investigation, or what this history of the investigation has been, but I believe that every student — regardless of where they go to school — needs to have a quality education. … My commitment is to be very transparent in terms of where the investigation is and what the next steps in the investigation are.

On metal detectors

Metal detectors are a polarizing issue in the debate over how to keep schools safe. Some advocates say the city would be better off investing in services like mental health supports, but others argue that metal detectors keep students and staff safe. Once metal detectors are installed in schools, they are almost never removed. But Carranza signaled he is open to having conversations about taking scanners out of schools.

The most effective, in my experience, security system is an environment where students feel a responsibility for their safety and feel comfortable in reporting when they hear or they see something… I think in some places there may be a very good reason why we have metal detectors. Again, I’m just getting here but that’s one of the topics I really want to explore. If we have metal detectors, what’s the reason for it, what’s the justification for it and if there’s no need for it, then how do we get rid of those?

On testing

New York has one of the largest opt-out movements in the country, with parents instructing their children to refuse to take standardized tests. Carranza said English and math tests should not crowd out other subjects such as art, but he also was clear that he does not encourage opting out.

I think it’s an extreme reaction to where I think we could have a much more nuanced approach. All right, let’s look at how much testing is happening in our schools, and then let’s decide what has to be there so that we know where our students are, and then let’s eliminate whatever we don’t need to have… There are a number of tests that serve a purpose. I think that’s a more nuanced conversation. What’s the purpose and why is that important?

On the Renewal program for struggling schools

De Blasio has spent more than $500 million to support struggling schools through Renewal, which floods dozens of struggling schools with extra support, social services such as health care, and a longer school day. Though the mayor promised “fast and intense” improvements, Renewal has produced mixed results. Carranza called the program “incredibly proactive,” but also suggested there might be changes coming.  

Where have the results been mixed and then how do we change strategies or how do we update our strategy? How do we become strategic in certain areas? That’s part of improving.