'Unconscionable': Latino, black student numbers at NYC elite public high schools stay low

“It’s not clear to me that those tests necessarily test ability as much as they test parents' income or sociological location,” one education expert noted.

Students leave Stuyvesant High School in New York on March 13, 2020.Bebeto Matthews / AP

For years, parents, educators and politicians in New York City have been embroiled in a fierce debate over the dismally low acceptance numbers for Latino and black students in its highly selective, elite public high schools — especially considering they make up 7 in 10 students.

Now, new data released by officials indicates the debate will continue with a renewed vigor, as the number of black and Latino students at such schools remains virtually unchanged.

According to admissions statistics from the N.Y.C. Department of Education, black and Latino students make up only 11.1 percent of admitted students for the 2020-2021 school year, a 0.5 percent increase from the previous year.

"New York City is the most segregated school system in the nation for black students, [and] the second most for Latinx students," said David Kirkland, an associate professor of urban education at New York University, and the executive director of its Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. "It's unconscionable, those numbers, in a city that expresses a commitment to equity and diversity."

At Stuyvesant High School, the most selective of the nine specialized schools, only 10 black students and 20 Latino students received admissions offers — fewer than the previous year, and a small fraction of the 766 admitted. At others, these numbers were even lower: Staten Island Technical High School admitted only one black and eight Latino students.

"The New Jim Crow"

Admissions to these schools hinge on a standardized test that some feel creates disproportionate barriers to populations that are already underrepresented.

In a statement, Richard A. Carranza, chancellor of the city's department of education, said that while he was proud of the students receiving acceptances, the numbers pointed to a glaring issue.

"Diversity in our specialized high schools remains stagnant, because we know a single test does not capture our students' full potential," he said in an emailed statement. "I am hopeful we'll move towards a more equitable system next year."

Eight of the nine specialized high schools admit solely on the basis of the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, and the ninth, the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, admits students by audition.

In an email, Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University, called the city's one-exam admissions policy "the new Jim Crow of public education." Wells, who serves as the executive director of Reimagining Education for a Racially Just Society at the university's Teachers College, emphasized standardized testing is not a sufficient metric upon which to make such decisions.

"We know that students' learning and knowledge is cultural and that too often standardized tests are culturally biased, resulting in racial and ethnic disparities in results," she said.

Kirkland explains there are a number of reasons why black and Latino students are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to standardized testing, from a lack of cultural emphasis on the practice, to culturally biased language and tasks on the exam, to the inability to afford expensive test prep.

"It's not clear to me that those tests necessarily test ability as much as they test parents' income or sociological location," he said.

Proposing alternatives

Kirkland adds that there are a plethora of alternative admissions metrics, pointing to the University of Texas system, which guarantees admissions to a percentage of top performers at every high school, or a more qualitative approach based on interviews and teacher recommendations.

Many city officials agree that the SHSAT is a flawed tool — including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has previously advocated for axing the admissions test in favor of a Texas style top of each middle school class admissions policy. But despite the mayor's support, the SHSAT has long been a political minefield in New York City, where many remain concerned about the potential side effects its removal would bring.

According to a 2019 report, Asian American admissions would drop by roughly 50 percent under such a plan, while black and Latino enrollment would be 4-5 times higher. Some Asian American community leaders and groups have opposed the plan, worrying that their voices were not considered on a move which would drastically affect their student populations. Asian American students currently hold more than half of the seats at specialized high schools, despite comprising only roughly a third of SHSAT test takers.

The law which mandates the SHSAT, the Hecht-Calandra Act, would need to be overturned by the state assembly, adding further difficulty to de Blasio's diversity efforts. During his tenure, de Blasio has worked to expand the Discovery program, which allows students from high financial need families who just miss the SHSAT cutoff to attend specialized high schools if they agree to enroll in a summer course. But the program has failed to significantly increase black and Latino admissions.

José Pérez, deputy general counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said he feels "just frustration, disappointment, and particularly by this mayor and this chancellor." He adds that while he supported initial efforts, like the expansion of the Discovery program, "clearly they were not sufficient."

"If they want to engage in the support of community residents and civil rights groups, they need to come to the table with something more substantial," he said.

In 2012, the group filed a federal civil rights complaint against the city's department of education alongside the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, citing the thousands of black and Latino students who were denied admissions by the SHSAT. Pérez said that while the city has since claimed to have vetted the test — one of the key criticisms of the initial complaint — the underlying issue remains unsolved.

"There are students that have excellent academic credentials, community involvement, leadership, but they may not just test well on this one test," Pérez said. "Does that then preclude them from ever getting a seat at one of these eight specialized high schools, which are the ones that open up doors and are really pathways to Ivy League universities?"

"What the specialized high schools set up is a vacuum of who gets to have opportunity and who doesn't," Kirkland said. He adds that those denied admission will go on to a high school with fewer resources, a college with less prestige, and to a job that pays less.

A lack of better educational opportunities can completely change a student's trajectory, especially for those coming from truly disadvantaged families.

To Kirkland, the stakes couldn't be higher, and it comes down to an issue of policy.

"Nothing has changed in terms of policy, therefore nothing has changed in terms of the outcomes that we get," he said. "There are recommendations on the table to do it, and we have to be brave enough, courageous enough, to take a hard look at them."

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