explainer

A Chalkbeat cheat sheet: The Specialized High School Admissions Test overhaul

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a major push last weekend to overhaul the admissions process at some of New York City’s most elite high schools, rekindling a fierce debate about race, high school admissions, and affirmative action.

If you are just catching up, here’s what you should know about the city’s plans.

Why is the mayor trying to change the admissions process at the city’s top high schools?

  • The city’s most prestigious “specialized” high schools, often described as the crown jewels of the system, are starkly segregated by race.
  • Though 67 percent of the city’s public school students are black or Hispanic, just 10 percent of offers to attend specialized high schools go to black or Hispanic students. This year, 10 black students were offered admission to the famed Stuyvesant High School — out of 902 offers.
  • Meanwhile, white and Asian students tend to be overrepresented: 52 percent of offers went to Asian students this year (16 percent of the city’s students are Asian). And roughly 27 percent of offers went to white students (15 percent of city students).
  • Many of the city’s high schools are racially segregated — not just specialized schools. But unlike other selective schools, eight specialized high schools are the only ones that admit students based on a single standardized test, known as the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT).

What is the city planning to do about it?

  • When Bill de Blasio ran for mayor in 2013, he advocated for scrapping the admissions test as a way of making the schools more racially balanced.
  • Instead, the mayor took smaller steps that were supposed to help underrepresented students do better on the test: The city expanded public test prep programs, offered the test during the school day in some middle schools, and boosted outreach. Those changes have failed to increase the share of black and Hispanic students enrolling at specialized high schools.
  • Over the weekend, de Blasio announced a more aggressive two-part plan. The first part would reserve 20 percent of spots at each specialized school for low-income students whose test scores put them just below the admissions cutoff.
  • A version of that program, called Discovery, has existed since the 1970s, and de Blasio has expanded it significantly in recent years. But since economic status is not a perfect substitute for race, the program has helped more low-income white and Asian students gain admission than black or Hispanic ones.
  • De Blasio’s new plan would expand Discovery even further, moving from roughly 4 percent of students admitted through the program to 20 percent. To ensure it helps more black and Hispanic students, the program will be restricted to low-income students at high-poverty schools, which tend to enroll more black and Hispanic students. (Previously, the program allowed low-income students who enrolled at more affluent schools to qualify.)
  • By the city’s own estimates, that would have a modest effect, increasing black and Hispanic student enrollment to 16 percent, up from about 9 percent.
  • The second — and more significant — element of the plan would eliminate the single admissions test in favor of a system where the top students at every middle school would be guaranteed a spot at a specialized high school.
  • Using a University of Texas-style system, middle school students would be ranked based on a combination of their course grades and standardized state test scores. After gradually phasing out the SHSAT over three years, the top 7 percent of students at each middle school would automatically earn a spot at a specialized high school. (About 5 to 10 percent of seats would be reserved for top students in private schools, who would be admitted by lottery.)
  • The top 7 percent model should boost diversity because the city’s middle schools are so racially segregated. Since top students at every middle school would be guaranteed a seat, middle schools that predominantly serve black and Hispanic students would begin sending more of their students to specialized high schools.
  • Under that proposal, 45 percent of offers to specialized schools would go to black and Hispanic students once the plan is fully phased in, according to city projections, a big jump from the 9 percent of those students who currently enroll, but still far from representative of the rest of the public school system.
  • Under the most optimistic circumstances, the plan will fully take effect in seven years, once the SHSAT is phased out over three years and a full group of high school students have been admitted under the new admissions system.

What’s next?

  • The mayor’s plan to set aside 20 percent of seats at specialized high schools will take effect next school year, and only requires action from the education department, which the mayor controls.
  • But eliminating the admissions exam in favor of a top 7 percent system will require action in the state legislature, since the single-test admissions procedure at three of the specialized high schools is written into state law. (Many legal experts argue the mayor could eliminate the test at five of the eight specialized schools that aren’t explicitly referenced in state law, but de Blasio has argued the legal process is murky.)
  • Powerful alumni groups and some state legislators have already begun lining up against the proposal to eliminate the SHSAT, which could derail the most effective element of the mayor’s plan. Less than 24 hours after the mayor’s press conference announcing the plan, Asian-American advocacy groups held an event protesting the plan.

New Possibilities

Inside a Bronx middle school where students rarely apply to attend specialized high schools

Parents and staff at New Venture discuss academics, mental health and how to improve school culture.

Shaydra Spand wants the very best for her daughter, Reniah. But it has never crossed her mind to one day send the sixth grader to one of New York City’s specialized high schools.

“If it means her doing better … Oh yeah, I would send her,” said Spand, during a parent workshop at her daughter’s school, New Venture School, in the Bronx. “But wait, where are they?”

Lately the city has been swallowed by a contentious debate over plans to admit more black and Hispanic students in specialized high schools, which reliably send graduates on to Ivy League colleges and high-powered careers. Considered crown jewels of the education system, the schools are overwhelmingly white and Asian.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is lobbying the state legislature to scrap the admissions test that stands as the sole criteria for entry, and instead allow all students who are in the top 7 percent of their school and the top 25 percent citywide to apply specialized high schools, ranked based on a combination of test scores and grades.

The proposal has sparked fierce backlash from opponents who say the test helps maintain rigorous academic standards at the schools. But if the plan becomes a reality, schools such as New Venture theoretically have the most to gain. Last year, just seven out of the 352 students at New Venture took the SHSAT to gain entry into one of the city’s eight elite high schools — among the lowest number of test takers of any middle school in the city. And according to New Venture’s principal, Dominic Cipollone, no students have gone to specialized high schools during his 14-year tenure.

But the proposal would do little to solve the most entrenched challenges that have kept students from schools such as New Venture out of specialized high schools for so long. Staff members say cramming for tests and landing seats at top schools have taken a backseat to life’s other difficulties — a hurdle city officials will have to face if the mayor’s plan goes into effect.

“I have kids who haven’t eaten, or who don’t have coats, or who saw someone get shot, and I can’t get that kid into the top 7 percent because he’s just focused on, damn I just need to get through this day,” said English teacher Charles Ebea. “He just wants to go home.”

At New Venture, which has a 94.3 percent poverty rate, students have performed far below the citywide average on state tests in recent years. In 2017, New Venture scored in the bottom 4 percent of schools citywide in state math tests and the bottom 5 percent in English.

In late 2014, the de Blasio administration designated it as one of a dozen Renewal Schools, a program designed to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools instead of closing them by offering extra services like after school programs and longer school days.  

The Renewal Program, though, has not shown great strides at struggling schools, and the majority of New Venture students still aren’t proficient in English and math. But the percentage of 7th grade students who scored proficient or above on English state tests rose from 0.9 percent in 2014 to 12.6 percent in 2017 and from 4.3 percent to 5.9 percent in math in the same time period.

With so many students struggling to pass state tests, it’s possible that the proposed admissions changes for specialized high schools could still leave some New Venture students out. The city’s plan would require students to be at the top of their class — but also within the top 25 percent of all students citywide, based on a combination of report card grades and test scores.

Improving test scores is a slow process, Cipollone admits, and he believes that this year the results of their heavy lifting will show.

“I’m confident in the growth we are seeing in preliminary stages, that we really won’t know until we actually see those scores come out,” he said. “But we just feel that this is the year when we will see some significant improvements.”

Cipollone points out that not all of his students received the support that they needed in elementary school and entered the school already far behind peers, like some of his sixth graders who came into New Venture unable to read.

“When you’re with kids who need a lot of remediation, along with that remediation comes a lot of social and emotional support they need, and that’s where teacher frustration comes in because it’s harder,” said Cipollone.

Despite its challenges, New Venture does have high-achievers and parents who are engaged. Last week, Children’s Aid, the non-profit group that is the school’s community partner under the Renewal program, hosted an event for parents to voice concerns about the school and to talk to teachers and other community members. During a workshop about Academics and Enrichment, seventh grade teacher Sharice Woodley-Bender responded to a parent who was concerned that his son wasn’t being challenged enough.

“We have different levels,” explained Woodley-Bender. “So we have the ones up here ‘boing boing boing!’ going really quickly. We’ve got the ones in the middle, they move along, and then we have the ones down here. The difference is so large it’s hard to keep everybody. So we gotta have roller skates on, and go from place to place checking on people. It’s hard.”

What would make their job “100 percent easier,” says ELA coach Celeste Smith, is if even more parents were involved.

“In the past three years all of those saying they wanted to be PTA president end up actually leaving the position, they moved away or they were no longer qualified because they didn’t have children who went here,” said Smith. “We want this to be a place your children want to be. But we also want to have your voice in the decisions that happen with your kids.”

Ebea is concerned that some students may be leery to apply to a specialized school because of the vast difference in demographics. New Venture is 58 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black, and just 1 percent white and 1 percent Asian. At the specialized schools, collectively about 10 percent of current students are black or Hispanic.

“If I’m a high performing minority student, black or Hispanic, and I go to a school that’s mostly Asian or white, and just a few other people look like me, I’m probably not going to achieve the same way. I might be able to, but if I’ve only gone to school with mostly black or Hispanic kids and now I’m in a building with a whole different group, I might feel less,” said Ebea. “What is that going to do for the self esteem of kids? Could they handle that or would they feel isolated?”

This means that the New Venture School would have to prepare its students to not only perform at a high level but feel incredibly confident in themselves.

“Before our students apply, we have to be making sure they understand the culture at these schools and that they don’t feel like outsiders,” said Cipollone. “You earned this spot, you have a right to be here, and you shouldn’t feel less than because you look different.”

The Department of Education says it has done targeted outreach about specialized schools in the form of phone calls, postcards and community events in 15 districts, including New Venture’s. 10 of the targeted districts are ones in which 50 or less students received admission offers to specialized high schools this year.

“We will work with principals and superintendents to ensure students are aware of the opportunities at all of our high schools – including specialized high schools – and to meet the needs of all students,” said Education Department spokesperson Will Mantell.

But a more simple concern for parents is how they would get their children to schools that are more than 30 minutes away. Dilcia Blanco, whose son Derek is in 6th grade at New Venture, had to tell her daughter Stacey, who was applying to schools this year, that getting her to Manhattan from the Bronx every day just wasn’t possible.

“At the high school she liked they start around 8, so she has to leave home around 6 and go home around 6:30? And take the bus and the train? I said no, Stacey, maybe it’s better to just go to a high school in this area,” said Blanco.

Despite believing that more of his students deserve spots at these schools, Cipollone contends that doing well on a single test shouldn’t be the only measure of academic success. Students from New Venture go on to non-selective schools like Harry S. Truman High School and Eximius College Preparatory Academy, which both had four-year graduation rates higher than the citywide average in 2017. However, the percentage of students who graduated college ready from each was lower, according to CUNY’s standards for avoiding remedial classes.

The popular visual and performing arts program at New Venture is also one of the reasons why more students at the school decide to put energy into auditioning for spots at arts-based high schools.

“It’s our job to identify where they are, what their needs are, and also what their gifts are,” Cipollone said “The testing doesn’t tell the full story of our school.”

Diversity Debate

Cynthia Nixon on specialized schools: ‘We need them to be more racially diverse’

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon met with students in Brooklyn on Thursday.

Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon waded into the debate about racial diversity at New York City’s most prestigious high schools Thursday, saying she generally supports a plan that aims to boost their share of black and Hispanic students.

“We need them to be more racially diverse when it comes to black and Latino students,” Nixon said of the eight specialized high schools that use a test to admit students. “And we also need more lower-income students in those schools who are at the top of their classes, but may not have had the supports that would have propelled them into just testing in.”

When asked whether, as governor, she would sign the bill that would remove the required single admissions test, a key element of the city’s plan, Nixon repeatedly said, “I think it’s a start.” (A campaign spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, later said that Nixon would sign it if it passed.)

The comments are the most specific Nixon has made about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan, announced this week in Chalkbeat, to increase diversity at the city’s top high schools, where collectively about 10 percent of current students are black or Hispanic and most students are Asian. The plan has won support from advocates who have long been pushing for changes but sparked fierce pushback from the schools’ alumni associations and some Asian-American community groups.

And while Nixon has long advocated for various education causes, she weighed in Thursday for the first time since launching her gubernatorial bid on the city’s broader school admissions policies.

Asked about schools that screen for admissions, which include schools that Nixon and at least one of her children attended, she said there’s more to be done to make sure schools are more racially representative of the city.

“We need to make sure that all students have access and that every school looks much more like a diversity of New York than it does right now,” she said, following a discussion with students about the school-to-prison pipeline.

But Nixon also implied that screening based on academic ability is typical of public school admissions. “Middle schools and high schools do that, generally speaking,” she said.

In fact, just 28 percent of schools citywide screen students based on grades, attendance, state test scores, and other factors, a system that contributes to extreme racial and academic segregation.

Nixon also weighed in on mayoral control of New York City’s schools, which requires approval of the state legislature. De Blasio has had to fight for that power repeatedly in Albany, and his control currently extends to June 2019, which means the debate will be live again this coming school year.

“I am tired of mayoral control coming up again and again and again. I think that it’s an issue that should be settled,” Nixon said.

Permanently? “I think so,” she responded.