Ethnic Disparities in New York's Specialized High Schools

Why sole reliance on a standardized test is unfair.

Posted May 29, 2019

There is a major controversy in New York City surrounding the very small number of black students attending its eight specialized public high schools. These numbers are especially problematic at the three large original gifted high schools—Bronx Science (my alma mater), Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant. When I attended Bronx Science, graduating in 1958, there were less than a half-dozen black kids (one of them, a year younger than me, was Stokley Carmichael). Six decades later, things haven’t changed; if anything, the racial disparity has widened. In a city as diverse and politically progressive as New York, the pride of its public education system (Science has produced more Nobel winners than any secondary school in the world) should not essentially have a sign saying “No Blacks Need Apply.”

In contrast to the dramatic dearth of black students, there has been an astronomical increase in the number of Asian students at these schools. During my time at Science I knew no more than two Asian students; today 65 percent of students at Science are Asian, (in a city where self-identifying Asian Americans constitute 15 percent of the population. The two diverging distributions are linked, in that the policy change most discussed as a way of increasing the numbers of black students in these elite schools—deemphasizing or eliminating standardized test scores—is viewed by the local Asian-American community as intentionally aimed at lowering the numbers of Asian students. A federal lawsuit now in its early stages claims that discrimination against Asians was the result.

Central to this controversy is a test, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, or SHSAT. This test, the sole basis for deciding whom to admit, is administered to any eighth or ninth grader residing in New York City wishing to take it (most of the applicants are eighth graders) each October. (English Language Learners can take the test a month later and are given a glossary of mathematics terms, without definitions, printed in nine languages.) On average, 30,000 students take the SHSAT every year and 6,000 are admitted to one of the eight specialized schools, for a pass rate of 20 percent. The SHSAT is produced and graded by the American Guidance Service (AGS) under a contract with the city. Of the 57 language-arts questions, approximately 10 involve revising/editing a passage, and approximately 47 involve questions about six or seven fiction or nonfiction passages. Of the 57 math questions, topics covered include algebra, factoring, substitution, geometry, coordinate graphing, logic, and word problems.

The scoring and calculating algorithm devised by AGS for the SHSAT is not public, but it appears that standard scores are calculated for the two sub-tests and then combined to comprise the overall score that is the sole basis for admission to these schools. There has been very little published about the psychometrics of the SHSAT but one interesting study indicated that a student who scored at the 90th percentile in both English and math would not be accepted, while a student who scored at the 99th percentile in math but only the 50th percentile in English would be. While there may be an innocent statistical explanation for this, a possible explanation is that math is deliberately given more weight. But such a bias in the predictive power of math versus language could contribute to the ethnic disparity problem: Recent immigrants, or the children of immigrants (and the tremendous growth in New York’s Asian population is due to immigration), are likely to be more fluent in mathematics than in language-based skills.  

A distorting factor affecting admissions is that one can now prepare for the SHSAT by signing up for cram courses aimed at helping students to get into the specialized high schools. Such courses are offered through several companies for $200 or more, and ads for these companies promise to increase performance on the test. (Such courses did not exist when I applied.) To help create a more level playing field, the Board of Education has launched a couple of initiatives, involving prep sessions on weekends and during the summer aimed mainly at students who meet certain low-income requirements—the Specialized High School Institute and the DREAM Program. Both programs share the sole purpose of helping low-income students and students of color succeed on the SHSAT.

A more direct and, to me, a more sensible approach to increasing student diversity would be to use a more broad-based method for identifying the most talented applicants, by supplementing the SHSAT with a review of grades, teacher nominations, interviews, etc. Such a mixed approach is in fact what is used by virtually all major colleges, but it is seen as impractical in the city for two reasons: (a) the sheer size of the applicant pool, and (b) legislative constraints.

The three original specialized high schools (Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant) were chartered by the state, which passed a law some years ago stating that nothing other than the SHSAT can be used to determine admission. (The other five specialized schools are city chartered, and alternative methods could be used for those, but the number of students attending these schools is much smaller.) To deviate from total reliance on the SHSAT would require passage of a state law authorizing a broader approach, something New York City mayor Bill De Blasio seeks but which may be difficult to accomplish politically. There is also the obstacle of the aforementioned federal case, which argues the unconstitutionality of a new admissions process that would effectively reduce the percentage of Asian students in these high schools.

The lead lawyer for that suit recently argued that in no case has anything other than the SHSAT ever been used to determine acceptance into the three major schools. (I can attest that his claim is exaggerated, as I was accepted off the Bronx Science waiting list in 1955 through an interview which gave great weight to my junior-high grades. To add fuel to the debate over the SHSAT’s predictive validity, my grades placed me in the top third of my high-school graduating class even though my performance on that and other standardized tests was never particularly strong.) The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and their supporters, would suggest that the SHSAT is an excellent indicator of native intelligence and of how one is likely to perform at an elite high school, but it is actually just an indication of how one performs (most likely, after prepping) on a test of math and language. As for predicting performance at the next level of schooling there is much evidence indicating that the best predictor of how one will do at a future school is how one is doing at one’s current school.

It is also worth noting that in the 1950s, besides being almost 100 percent white, Bronx Science students (and teachers) were overwhelmingly Jewish, something that was largely true of the Bronx, or at least the West Bronx, at the time. (Master highway builder Robert Moses changed all that by driving the massive Cross-Bronx Expressway through my neighborhood, causing my Jewish parents and virtually all of their friends and relatives to move to the suburbs.) The preponderance of Jews at New York’s most selective public schools in that era is relevant in a way that seems ironic given the centrality of standardized entrance exams to the current controversy. The irony (I have Malcolm Gladwell to thank for this factoid) is that college entrance exams, especially the SAT, were devised in part as a way of reducing the large numbers of Jewish students beginning to flood previously WASP-dominated Ivy League schools, such as Columbia. The widespread belief was that Jews got higher grades because they were pushed by their families to work harder, while equally bright (or brighter) upper-class non-Jewish kids who had been the mainstays of Ivy League schools led more balanced lives and were almost discouraged from doing anything as crass as trying too hard to get good grades. Thus, grades (formerly the main criterion used for admission to elite secondary and post-secondary schools) were considered an unreliable indicator of future academic ability and potential. The proponents of testing as an admission mechanism operated on the extremely naïve notion that academically accomplished minorities would not do as well on entrance exams as they did on course-related homework and exams. The reality was that the same minority group continued to excel in the exams. The irony is that today the exams are held up as the major cause of the ethnically disproportionate enrollments.

istock/ Getty Images
empty classroom
Source: istock/ Getty Images

The best way to achieve ethnic diversity while still keeping standards high, is to look at the whole child—their drive, creativity, and approach to learning—rather than relying solely on a test which I am pretty certain some eighth-grade future Nobel Prize winner would not have done all that well on. Such a balanced approach is exactly what is followed in a school district in Virginia, which uses the SHSAT in combination with other methods to select attendees for its science-oriented specialized high school. It is mistaken, in my opinion, to think that a single test, administered at age 13 or 14, can reliability determine who our future leaders are likely to be.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan