Study: Specialized High Schools Less Likely to Accept Blacks, Latinos

By Sheryl Estrada


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The Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) is a priority for a New York City eighth-grade student seeking entrance into one of eight specialized high schools known for their elite curriculum. The two-and-a-half hour test is currently the only measure for acceptance to these schools, and has long been criticized for hindering the access of Blacks and Latinos.

A new report from New York University’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools simulated the effects of admissions criteria that have been proposed as alternatives to the SHSAT.

Researchers found that admission based on other measures, such as state test scores, grades and attendance, would not increase diversity substantially, particularly in the number of Black students.

“While there is a clear pattern of unequal access at the specialized schools, our findings suggest that a narrow focus on the SHSAT is unlikely to solve the problem,” Sean Corcoran, Associate Professor of Educational Economics at NYU’s Steinhardt School and an author of the report, said in a statement.

The findings may be part of a continual debate as many education and civil-right activists oppose the city’s admissions process to specialized high schools, filling a complaint in 2012 with the U.S. Department of Education. They argue the SHSAT violates the Civil Rights Act.

The state legislature has the authority to change admissions standards. Last year, bills that received lukewarm political support were introduced in Albany to change the process to include multiple measures to decide admissions. During his mayoral campaign in 2013, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio also complained about the admissions process. He has not officially endorsed legislation. His son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Technical High School, a specialized school.

According to The New York Times, the New York City Education Department released the latest statistics of students earning acceptance. Out of 5,103 students offered acceptance to the eight specialized high schools, 5 percent were Black and 7 percent were Latino, while 52 percent were Asian and 28 percent were white.

Each year approximately 25,000 eighth-graders take the SHSAT, which is free. An average of 5,000 are offered admission to a specialized high school. These admitted students represent about 6 percent of the city’s eighth-grade students.

“It’s critical that our city’s specialized high schools reflect the diversity of our city,” Carmen Faria, the city schools Chancellor, said in a statement. “We continue to review a variety of ideas to increase diversity at our specialized high schools.”She offered solutions like trying to increase access to the test and free, expanded test prep.

Analyzing data from 2005 to 2013, the study confirms that Black, Latino, low-income and female students are significantly less likely to score high enough on the SHSAT to be admitted to a specialized school.

In the fall of 2013, only 3.8 percent of Blacks entered one of the “Big 3” schools and only 5.4 percent of Latinos. In the other specialized schools, 6.9 percent were Black and 13.7 percent Latino.

(Table 1 is fromPathways to an Elite Education: Exploring Strategies to Diversify NYC’s Specialized High Schools.)

The “Big 3” are Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School. Other specialized high schools are Staten Island Technical High School, the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering at City College, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, and the Brooklyn Latin School.

In analyzing the pathway into these schools, researchers found that even within the restraints of SHSAT-based admissions, there are opportunities for increasing diversity through interventions, ensuring well-qualified students take the SHSAT and are prepared adequately.

The study also says that offering guaranteed admission to the highest-performing students in every middle school would significantly change the diversity of the schools. However, that may result in having to reduce the average achievement of incoming students.

The authors conclude that the lack of diversity in specialized high schools is systematic of a larger problem:

The sobering reality is that disparities in the specialized schools mirror larger, system-wide achievement gaps that exist prior to middle school. Ensuring that Black, Latino, and low-income students have access to high-quality educational opportunities, from the earliest grades, is a central challenge facing the City’s public schools.

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