Change on the way

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio suggests changes to elite high school admissions are just the beginning

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for admissions changes at specialized high schools.

Overhauling admissions at the city’s prestigious specialized high schools could be just the opening salvo in more aggressive efforts to unravel segregation throughout the city’s school system, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed Sunday.

“Changing them sends the message that everything is going to change,” de Blasio said at a press conference to formally announce the policies he first described in Chalkbeat. “If you can fix this problem, you can fix anything.”

Surrounded by lawmakers, teachers union representatives, students, and educators inside the gymnasium of J.H.S. 292 in East New York, de Blasio said he chose this moment to tackle diversity in elite high schools because he believes he has a mandate from his re-election last year — and noted the arrival of a new schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, who has been outspoken about inequity.

De Blasio, whose more aggressive proposals require legislative action, also pointed to potential power shifts in Albany and growing public pressure in New York City from integration advocates, suggesting bolder action is on the way.

“The stars have now aligned,” the mayor said. “The moment’s right for it.”

Chalkbeat reported exclusively on Saturday that the mayor is pushing to scrap the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the sole determining factor in admissions to eight specialized high schools — and is calling instead for a system that admits top-performing students from every middle school. The city will also expand its Discovery program, which extends admission to low-income students who score just below the cut-off on the entrance exam.

Specialized high schools reliably send students to top colleges and high-profile careers, but relatively few black and Hispanic students attend — one example of the racial segregation that extends to schools across New York City. Only 10 percent of admissions offers for the schools went to black and Hispanic students this year. Citywide, those students make up two-thirds of the population.

“These are the most respected, most prestigious schools in the city. We will not allow them to be agents of unfairness,” de Blasio said.

De Blasio made changing admissions at the specialized high schools part of his campaign when he first ran for office in 2013. After an initial push the next year for changes at the state, the issue largely faded from the mayor’s agenda as he focused his attention of expanding prekindergarten in the city.

The renewed campaign to eliminate the admissions test marks a shift in tone for a mayor who has avoided using the word “segregation.” And some observers have noted that it coincides with the start of a new schools chief who has been far more blunt in questioning how the city sorts students into schools, and who quickly inserted himself into a contentious debate about integration in Upper West Side middle schools.

At Sunday’s press conference, Carranza said the stark underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at specialized high schools is a problem with “the system, not the students.”

Pursuing admissions changes at the schools pits de Blasio against an unfriendly legislature and powerful alumni groups that have fought to preserve the entrance exam. State law requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score, and de Blasio has had a contentious relationship with Republicans in the State Senate, who have repeatedly frustrated the mayor by extending his control of city schools by only one or two years at a time.

But the mayor said that with his educational priority — universal prekindergarten — implemented, he believes the time is right to pivot to another education issue and take this fight to Albany.

Assembly Member Charles Barron has sponsored legislation to nix the exam, and legislators such as state Sen. Roxanne Persaud were on-hand at Sunday’s press conference to pledge support. Under the proposed law, the entrance exam would be phased out over three years. A growing number of seats would be reserved for high-performing students at every middle school each year, until 90 to 95 percent of admissions offers would go to the top 7 percent of students. The rest of the seats would be reserved for a lottery for students in private schools or who are new to the city.

Power dynamics have been shifting in Albany, which could provide the city with an opening for change. A group of breakaway Democrats who worked with Republicans in the State Senate disbanded this year. Additionally, special elections won by new Democratic lawmakers paved the way for Democrats to control a majority of the seats in the Senate. However, one Democratic Senator from Brooklyn has continued to caucus with Republicans, allowing them to control the chamber — for now.

The two other crucial players in Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, expressed interest in reforming admissions at the city’s specialized high schools this weekend but did not specifically express support for the bill backed by de Blasio.

“I think the question of equity in education is very important,” Cuomo said at an unrelated event on Sunday. “I think the question on admissions and how schools are segregated, desegregated is a very important issue.” (A Cuomo spokesperson said officials are reviewing the specifics of the bill.)

Still, winning over lawmakers promises to be an uphill battle. New York State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods with heavily Asian populations, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal. Asian students are disproportionately enrolled in the city’s specialized high schools, and some advocates have said that changing the admissions criteria will disadvantage a group of students who often come from low-income families.

Alumni groups also promise to be a leading voice of opposition. The alumni foundations of Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Technical called de Blasio’s plan “absolutely not the answer” to the schools’ diversity problems in a statement released Saturday, and made the familiar argument that the city should instead boost quality at its middle schools to serve as a pipeline to competitive high schools.

“The goal must be to address the systematic, long-term educational challenges facing far too many young people in underrepresented communities,” the alumni groups said. “And help to ensure that all New York City school children have access to the high-quality educational opportunities they deserve.“

While the legislative battle plays out, the city is pursuing other changes that it can make on its own. The city will reserve 20 percent of seats at every specialized high school for students who are in Discovery — just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017. In a push to make sure a more diverse range of students benefits from the expansion, the city will limit the program to students in schools serving mostly poor students.

Reporter Monica Disare contributed to this report.

Want more about de Blasio’s proposals? Read our earlier take on the plan here and de Blasio’s op-ed here.

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.


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The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.