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.

talking SHSAT

Fair and objective or useless and biased? A Chalkbeat guide to the case for and against New York City’s specialized high school test

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

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to scrap the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for New York City’s vaunted specialized high schools, he led supporters gathered in the gymnasium of a Brooklyn middle school in chants of “The test has to go!”

Just days later, protesters flooded the steps of City Hall to defend the Specialized High School Admissions Test. “What do we want? SHSAT!” they yelled.

The pushback against de Blasio’s plan hasn’t stopped. In the more than two months since he launched a push to overhaul admissions in an effort to admit more black and Hispanic students, former allies have backed away, political opponents have put forth their own proposals, and the mayor has contended with a steady stream of protests.

The debate gets emotional quickly, and facts can be hard to find. Here’s our guide to the arguments against de Blasio’s plan and the most common alternatives proposed: what’s true, what might work, and what probably won’t.

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because it will cause the quality of students’ education at the specialized high schools to suffer.

This argument hinges on the idea that the students admitted under de Blasio’s plan will be less prepared academically. To judge it, we need to know how the academic profile of students admitted to specialized high schools would change. The city has some answers: Under de Blasio’s proposal, which would offer admission to top middle school students across the city, the projected average grade point average and state test scores of the incoming classes would remain about the same as they are now.

The education department says that students’ state test scores would slip slightly: incoming students would go from an average level 4.1 to a 3.9 (out of a possible 4.5). The grade point average of admitted students would hold steady at 94.

Then, there’s the question of whether those are appropriate metrics for judging who is prepared for the specialized schools. Research suggests that GPA may be a better predictor than the SHSAT of how students will perform in specialized high schools, at least for those who are admitted with lower scores on the entrance exam. But some argue that the specific kind of rigorous preparation typically required to succeed at the SHSAT helps students do well at the demanding schools, too.

Integration advocates have pushed back against this argument because it suggests that black and Hispanic students aren’t as bright as the students who now fill specialized high schools.

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because it is a fair and unbiased way to select students.

Defenders of the SHSAT say it is an objective way to determine merit: If you do well enough on the test, you’re in.

The exam is particularly appealing to Asian parents, who have said they worry that more subjective measures, such as interviews, would be biased against their children. Case in point: the recent controversy at Harvard, where Asian students vying for admission were consistently assigned lower scores on personality traits, according to legal documents in a suit claiming the university discriminates against Asian applicants.

A recently released study also found the SHSAT generally predicts which students are likely to be successful early in high school.

There’s no doubt that the exam is a clean-cut way of making admissions decisions — and clarity is rare in the New York City high school admissions system, where sought-after schools can all have different criteria and students are eventually admitted by an algorithm.

But we also know that not all eligible New York City students are taking the SHSAT, and its use shuts out lots of students who can’t afford test prep. Students also have to know how and when to sign up to take it. (The city has tried to address some of those issues. It hasn’t worked.)

Researchers say the recently released study doesn’t do much to settle the debate around the SHSAT, either. “It tells us something we already knew: Kids who do well on the SHSAT do well in high school,” Aaron Pallas, a researcher at Columbia who reviewed the study, recently told Chalkbeat. “But it doesn’t tell us what is the best combination of factors that predict who might do well in an exam school.”

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because the proposal is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist — a lack of diversity.

The debate around specialized high schools is complicated by the fact that they are already full of students of color: enrollment is about 62 percent Asian.

Some argue that changing the admissions system to admit more black and Hispanic students would come at the expense of Asian students, who have the highest poverty rate of all racial and ethnic groups in specialized high schools (but not citywide). At the eight schools that use the SHSAT for admissions, 63 percent of Asian students come from low-income families, according to data provided by the city.

“What’s so frustrating about the mayor and City Hall’s narrative is that it seems to, at best, deny that Asian Americans are people of color too,” Ron Kim, a state assemblyman who represents heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens, recently told Chalkbeat.

But the disparity between the specialized schools and the city is wide. Only 10 percent of students at the high schools are black or Hispanic, even though those students make up 70 percent of public school enrollment citywide.

Specialized high schools fall short on a range of other diversity measures, too.

Citywide, about 74 percent of students come from poor families. About half of all students in specialized high schools come from low-income families. At High School of American Studies at Lehman College, a small specialized high school in the Bronx, the poverty rate is only 20 percent.

The specialized high schools also enroll a tiny number of students with disabilities, and almost no students who are learning English as a new language.

Research has shown that integrated classrooms can benefit all students. Studies have found that racially and ethnically diverse classrooms can reduce prejudice, improve critical thinking, and lead to high levels of civic engagement.

“Learning doesn’t just involve balancing multiple extracurriculars, enrollment in several Advanced Placement classes and acceptances at Ivy League institutions,” Bo Young Lee, an Asian-American graduate of Stuyvesant recently wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. “It’s also having a perspective challenged and broadened by others who look and live differently.”

Argument: Admissions to the high schools shouldn’t change because they’re already producing successful students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Students of color and those who come from poor families often lack access to schools with experienced teachers, advanced courses, and strong graduation records. Specialized high schools offer all that, plus a reputation for sending graduates to top colleges.

But research suggests that the stellar results of specialized high schools have more to do with the students themselves.

Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, recently reviewed two studies on specialized high schools in both New York City and Boston that were conducted by other academics. She summed up their question like this: “Do the exam schools produce academically outstanding graduates, or do they simply admit stellar students and enjoy credit for their successes?”

Two studies suggest the latter, at least for students who were admitted to specialized high schools with lower SHSAT scores. They found that specialized high schools had little effect on whether those graduates went on to college, were admitted to a selective university, and whether they earned a post-secondary degree. (There could be other benefits, outside of academic measures or later in life, of attending the selective schools.)

“While the exam school students in our samples typically have good outcomes, most of these students would likely have done well without the benefit of an exam school education,” researchers wrote in a 2014 report on Boston and New York.  

One counterproposal: Increase access to the test — and to test prep.

Rather than scrapping the SHSAT, many have called on the city to expand test prep to level the playing field. Others argue that prep courses should be more widely available — and better advertised — so more students have a chance to actually take them.

The city has already tried to tackle those issues, and it hasn’t made a dent in changing the demographics at specialized high schools.

The city has begun to offer the SHSAT on a school day at some middle schools in underrepresented communities, and boosted public test prep programs and outreach to increase the number of test-takers. Those efforts haven’t resulted in many more black and Hispanic students passing the exam.

Another counterproposal: Focus on improving elementary and middle schools first.

Some SHSAT defenders say the key to helping more students do well on the exam is to make sure they get a solid education earlier in their schooling. Rather than scrapping the test, the city should do more to make sure students can reach that bar — and that means investing in schools that have long been under-resourced.

“The results of the SHSAT are merely a reflection of the failure of the city to properly educate our black and Hispanic students,” Tahseen Chowdhury, who attended Stuyvesant, recently wrote in an op-ed.

Integration advocates call this argument a red herring since it suggests that unless everything can be solved at once, nothing should change. It also suggests there aren’t more black and Hispanic students already in the system who are capable of doing well in specialized high schools.

The reasons why schools struggle are complex, and often tied up in issues relating to segregation and poverty. Educators and policy makers far beyond New York City have grappled with how to improve academic outcomes for the country’s most vulnerable children, but there has been slow improvement in test scores and graduation rates for black and Hispanic students.

Meanwhile, the existence of New York’s robust test-preparation industry reflects the reality that many families turn to outside help — regardless of the quality of their child’s school — to prepare them to win a spot in specialized high schools.

A third counterproposal: The city should expand gifted and talented programs so more students are ready for advanced academic work.

Many alumni and elected officials have called on the city to expand gifted programs, which are seen as a reliable pipeline into specialized high schools. At the Anderson School in Manhattan, which has one of the most selective gifted programs in the city for elementary school, 76 percent of eighth-graders who took the SHSAT got an offer to a specialized high school this year.

“If we do that, we would not have a diversity problem,” Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, said at a recent rally at City Hall. “We need to meet the needs of children who are above grade level.”

But only 22 percent of students in city gifted programs are black or Hispanic. Absent specific integration measures, experts say that an expansion of gifted programs probably won’t help more of those students get in. The city has already expanded a new kind of gifted program in a few neighborhoods, resulting in more diverse classrooms.

Still, just like specialized high schools, admission to gifted programs usually hinges on the results of a test. Few children take the exam in poor neighborhoods, where schools often enroll more black and Hispanic students. An even smaller number score well enough to get into a program, which many experts attribute to extensive test prep.

“As long as gifted and talented program admissions are based on a single test, advantaged families will be able to game the system by prepping for it,” researchers Allison Roda and Halley Potter, who have both studied gifted programs in New York City, recently wrote in an op-ed.

There’s also the unanswered question of whether gifted programs serve as a funnel to specialized high schools simply because they admit students who do well on tests and come from savvy families — or because of the impact of the schools themselves.

Great Divide

Can a proposal to expand gifted classes help integrate New York City’s specialized high schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
New York State Sen. Tony Avella proposed legislation to expand gifted programs in New York City as a way to help integrate specialized high schools.

In the battle to integrate New York City’s specialized high schools, some have argued that the city’s efforts should start much earlier: with more gifted and talented programs in elementary and middle school.

A new bill proposed by New York Sen. Tony Avella aims to do just that by expanding gifted offerings and by starting a new track of classes for advanced students. But how much the bill will actually spur integration is unclear.

Advocates for the legislation rallied Tuesday at City Hall, positioning the proposal as an alternative to scrapping the entrance exam to specialized high schools.

“This is all designed to give kids a better education, so they can pass the test,” Avella said.

The legislation, introduced on July 27, echoes calls from other elected officials and some alumni from the specialized high schools who say gifted classes provide a pipeline into the city’s vaunted high schools.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently sparked a heated debate when he proposed eliminating the exam that currently serves as the sole admissions gatekeeper to specialized high schools in an effort to make them more diverse. Although about 70 percent of students citywide are black or Hispanic, those students comprise only 10 percent of enrollment at the specialized high schools.

Gifted programs, currently offered only in the elementary grades, are similarly segregated: Only 22 percent of students in this track are black or Hispanic.

Supporters of Avella’s legislation say the law would restore a reliable pathway leading to specialized high schools that used to be more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods.

“If we do that, we would not have a diversity problem,” said Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. “We need to meet the needs of children who are above grade level.”

While the city doesn’t technically have gifted programs after fifth grade, some middle schools enjoy a reputation akin to gifted because they often admit students who have attended an accelerated program in elementary school or because they have their own entrance exams.

Those middle schools, in turn, feed an outsized share of students to the specialized high schools. For example, at the Anderson School in Manhattan, which offers a gifted program in the lower grades that is among the most competitive in the city to get into, almost all eighth-graders took the specialized high school test, and 76 percent of them were offered admission. More than 51 percent of the school’s students are white.

But there are reasons to be skeptical of the legislation, which doesn’t include explicit measures to boost diversity.

“I think it’s a smokescreen,” said Lazar Treschan, who has studied the city’s specialized high schools closely for the Community Service Society of New York, an organization that advocates for low-income residents. “The people who are getting in now are pretty much going to keep getting in” to specialized high schools.

Here’s a cheat sheet to explain what the legislation would do, and why it might fall short of its goal.  

What would the bill do?

The bill has two main components. The first would expand gifted offerings. The second would create a new program for advanced students — one that does not require the standard gifted test for admission.

  • The bill would require the city to offer gifted programs in every school district. The city has been steadily increasing access to gifted programs in districts that have long gone without. Officials have done that by launching new programs that start in third grade, rather than kindergarten. Next year, every district will offer a gifted program, but the legislation would mandate this by the state.
  • The legislation would also create a formal gifted track in middle schools, where today there is none. Students would be guaranteed admission if they attended a gifted program in elementary school. For others, a new entrance exam would be created to enroll in a gifted program for grades six through eight.
  • Additionally, the bill would create a parallel program for accelerated students, which would not use the current gifted test for admissions. The bill says students would be admitted based on “academic merit,” but it does not define what that means or who would make such enrollment decisions.
  • These accelerated programs would be required in every school where there are at least four classes per grade level.

Why the proposal could fall short:

  • Gifted programs are already deeply segregated, so an expansion isn’t likely to spur more diversity absent other measures to increase integration.
  • Gifted programs would still rely on an entrance exam to determine admissions — and create a new test for middle school students. Integration advocates trace the diversity problems in gifted — and specialized high schools — back to admissions tests. Critics say that the tests advantage students with the time and resources to prepare.
  • The bill’s advocates say the new, accelerated courses would help solve that problem. But there’s nothing in the legislation that guarantees a more diverse group of students would be admitted to these classes, and other diversity efforts have backfired. For example: After the city expanded a program that offers admission to specialized high schools to students from low-income families whose scores just missed the admissions cut-off, white and Asian students were the ones who mostly benefited.
  • The legislation doesn’t change anything about how students are admitted to specialized high schools. Critics of the current system say one of the few surefire ways to admit more black and Hispanic students is to move to a system like the one de Blasio is proposing, which would admit top performers from every public middle school.