How Do We Balance Equity with Academic Achievement?

In New York City public schools, the students who attend the specialized high schools are not reflective of the city’s demographics. Only 42% of specialized high school students are female. 70% of the New York City school population are African American and Latino students, but only 11% of students who attend specialized high schools are African American and Latino. Currently, African Americans are 28% of the population but, in 2015, only 10 black students gained acceptance to Stuyvesant High School out of 953 available spots. The only way to get admitted to these schools is through one exam taken in the fall of eighth grade.


How can this be so? Where are all the bright African American and Latino students? Why aren’t they represented in these selective schools?

The private schools are highly motivated to recruit and admit African American and Latino students. Programs like Oliver Scholars, TEAK and Prep for Prep prepare students for admission to private city and boarding schools. Many of the African American and Latino candidates who would qualify for the specialized schools choose to attend private schools.

    New York City’s specialized schools are the only ones in the nation that rely on one test for admission. Chicago, San Francisco and Boston have highly academic schools that administer a test but also  factor in state test scores, teacher recommendations and other criteria for admission.

    Mayor DeBlasio wants to broaden the admissions criteria too, but his own efforts are currently falling far short of what he could do if he was demonstrating solid leadership in preparing our qualified, bright young people for the test. The free test prep program called DREAM (Determination Resilience Enthusiasm Ambition and Motivation) is overseen by the Department of Education’s Office for Equity and Access. This promising program must not be a priority for Mayor DeBlasio because it is not fully funded. There were only 1,450 seats for incoming sixth graders. This did not meet the demand for the 6,500 eligible students. Only 22% of qualified, low income, primarily African American and Latino students could take the test prep course. Mayor, please fully fund and expand your own program before altering the criteria for admission. How heartbreaking that last year, 5,050 qualified students were denied the DREAM program’s preparation because of the mayor’s choice to refuse to allocate adequate resources for a program that could help more Latinos and African Americans young people attend the specialized high schools.

Another way to increase the admission of low income African American and Latino students is to provide test prep books at low or no cost.

    In order to excel on the exam, students need to study with tremendous verve and vigor. Much of the material that is tested is more advanced than what is taught in the middle school curriculum. In some New York City neighborhoods, the test preparation begins years before the exam is taken.

No other schools in the nation use just one test for school admission. As a former Admissions Director at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, I took many factors into account when examining a student’s fitness for admission. Teacher recommendation letters, a standardized test score, grades and an interview were all used in the screening process. I favored social and nice students who would be pleasant in class and kind to their peers.

This emphasis on sociability makes sense when creating a positive school culture. But do we care if our top thinkers are smooth socially? Or good at wooing their teachers so they receive excellent recommendation letters? The social magic that is often required to get good grades does not correlate with academic ability. High intelligence and extraordinary diligence are the keys.

What is the experience like at the specialized high schools?  Life is a grind. The workload would break most students. Only the extremely determined and super sharp students excel there.

And you know what? I think it’s pretty close to ideal to have super hard working and super smart students in advanced high schools. We need the brightest to have a special training ground. These talented students, when gathered together in one spot, can exchange ideas and challenge each other to eventually become the leading thinkers, those who cure disease and solve major world problems.

Unlike college or most schools’ admissions, it’s not the teacher’s pets or the students who are lousy test takers who gain admission to the specialized high schools. If we dumb down the admissions process as Mayor DeBlasio wants by factoring in other criteria like scores on state tests, grades and teacher recommendations, will we still have the brightest kids at the top schools? Let’s take a look.

    The state test? That test is a piece of cake to pass for the average specialized high school student.  Factoring in that score won’t help diversify the schools’ population.

    Grades? We all know people who work hard and earn outstanding grades, but they are often not the sharpest knives in the drawer. We also may know the students who are far smarter than the ones who earned the high grades but did not choose to jump through all the arbitrary hoops necessary to get high grades.

To excel at a specialized high school, you need to be able to absorb information at lightning speed.  I have sat in on over fifteen different classes at Stuyvesant and the instruction is fast-paced and extraordinarily demanding. The level and intensity take my breath away.

So, how about teacher recommendations? Most teachers tend to prefer the malleable or social kid and would not put forward the grumpy genius who rolls eyes and smirks during class. But that kid may be the right kid for the competitive schools. So what if s/he is not likable? Do you care about the personal characteristics of your surgeon or the person who just discovered a pill that cures your ailment?

Sometimes the kids who get into the top schools are not the ones with the highest grades or the best relationships with their teachers. One student that attended a public middle school where I worked was a true rebel who did not adhere to many teachers’ rules. In eighth grade, he frequently spent his days in the suspension room because of his wiseass attitude. Nevertheless, he gained admission to Stuyvesant High School and, despite his low middle school grades and teachers’ resentment, he excelled at Stuy where was not a charmer but thrived on being challenged.

    My son currently attends Stuyvesant High School. He prepared for the test on his own and did not take any classes. I purchased about six test prep books for him, and he worked extremely hard to prepare for that day in October of his eighth grade year when the test was administered. He had access to the materials because he was fortunate to have the financial resources and parental support that helped his smooth preparation.

His class has 850 students in it. Most are boys and 80% are Asian Americans. 52% qualify for free lunch (citywide 79% qualify) and most are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. My son is nearly midway through high school, Sometimes, he gets four hours of sleep several nights in a row because the academic demands are so high. The school is designed for young people who thrive on being overwhelmed with work. The work ethic required during the test preparation process is indicative of the onslaught of school work to come. In other words, if a student is both smart and extremely hard working, a specialized high school is the right choice.

In this climate, how can the city make the demographics in specialized high school more closely mirror the city’s gender and racial makeup?

A great start would be to fully fund and expand the DREAM project. The city should also provide scholarships and transportation to African American and Latino students so they can attend the test prep classes in places that have reputations for high acceptance to the specialized schools. The city can do far more to make the specialized high schools diverse. They should also begin focusing on recruiting bright young African American and Latino girls into these test prep programs.

Until the mayor fully funds and supports the expansion of test prep programs for African American and Latinos, he has not adequately tried to solve the problems of admission into the specialized high schools. Dumbing down the admissions process will result in stigmatizing the African American and Latino students who gain admission through quotas or other criteria.

Dear Mayor, please pony up the money for test prep while maintaining the high standards that make our top schools some of the best in the country.

Elaine PerlmanComment