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.

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.

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.”