Should a test determine your high school?

In New York City, there are several highly selective public high schools called Specialized High Schools.  You’ve probably heard of some of them, like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech.  They’re excellent schools.  The way you get in is by taking the test that might have the most frightening acronym I’ve ever seen: the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT.

New York has been embroiled in a conflict over this very policy.  The SHSAT was created to provide an unbiased measure to try to combat racial discrimination in admission and to create greater diversity in the schools.  It hasn’t worked.  Out of 952 students admitted to Stuyvesant last year, only 7 were Black.  Seven.  In a city where 25.5% of the population is Black, less than 0.7% of Stuyvesant’s admitted students were Black.  (Stuyvesant had the highest cutoff scores; the results for other schools were significantly better but nowhere approaching representative.  For example, 6.9% of admitted students to Brooklyn Tech were Black.)  The situation is so bad that the NAACP has filed a lawsuit over specialized high school admissions alleging that the SHSAT is racially discriminatory.

Now, I run a program for underserved New York City middle school students with talent in math.  We work to create a realistic pathway for our students to enter into careers in science, mathematics, engineering, programming, and more.  As you can imagine, admission to a good high school is critical to their success.  It matters a lot if you have the opportunity to study calculus, to be on a math team or a robotics team, or to do independent research.  Our students are 88% Black or Latino.  Over 25% of them get into specialized high schools, and another 25% get into other highly selective schools in the city.  Getting our kids into good high schools is of primary importance to me.

I wish that changing the SHSAT could possibly address the problems faced by our students, and students like them across all of New York.  It won’t, and we shouldn’t change the system without a viable alternative.

Why?  Because the SHSAT is just reflecting a stark reality: minority students in New York City are less prepared, and they are not given a chance to excel.  If we drop the SHSAT, we might see an increase in diversity.  But it will stratify the schools, creating two tiers of students, those with adequate preparation (who will be taking advanced classes) and those without it (who will be taking more basic classes).  Can you imagine a school with such obvious racial segregation?  This would send the wrong message to the students, the teachers, and the outside world, and it would paper over the truth, which is that these incredibly brilliant, incredibly promising kids are not getting the education they deserve at a much younger age than high school.

Let’s see if we can understand just how stark this difference is.  There is a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  It is a low-stakes test given every few years to a nationally representative sample of students, with sub-samples in major cities.  Because it is low stakes (nothing depends on the outcome), no one studies for it.  It’s just a measure of what they’ve learned.  While there might be biases—some curricula might be more closely aligned with it than others, for example—within one city it’s a good measure.

NAEP has a wonderful online tool where you can run queries on its data, so I did.  So let’s see what percentage of students score at the Advanced level on this low-stakes test in New York City in 8th grade.  Asian students?  26.20% score at Advanced.  White students?  17.72%.  Black students?  1.40%.  Hispanic students?  0.93%.  That’s not a typo.

No one is studying for this test.  There are no cram schools for it, no tutors.  Much as I dislike tests, as far as measures of what the students have actually learned, this is pretty good.  And what we find is stats which, when scaled for city population, match the overall specialized high school admissions pretty well. (*)

Now imagine that you artificially admit more underrepresented minority students.  What happens?  They are not as well prepared.  Obvious differences appear in the student body.  And it doesn’t fix the real problem, the one that no one seems to want to address, which is that the students are not adequately prepared when they are younger.

I’ve worked with a lot of our alumni who go on to specialized schools.  It’s a tremendous opportunity for them.  It’s also very, very difficult adjusting to a much more rigorous academic experience than what they had in middle school.  We provide a lot of support and tutoring, like what more affluent students would be able to get.  Broadening admissions simply does not address the real issues.  Moreover, there are several great schools in the city (such as Bard High School Early College, or The Beacon School) which are not based only on tests, but consider grades, interviews, portfolios, and more.  We recommend each student to the school that is the best fit for them both for admission and for attendance.  There are other options.

There are serious, legitimate questions to be asked about the SHSAT.  The test should be properly validated.  It should be examined for racial bias.  We should consider other admissions mechanisms that might be more fair—but not jump to them willy-nilly!  Right now, there is no serious alternate proposal that looks likely to accomplish the goals of the specialized schools, and there is no evidence that the SHSAT is discriminatory given the prior academic achievement of the students who take it.

Now can we please, please, please support the very promising students in elementary and middle school who are ready for more math in their lives?

Footnotes

(*) It does seem like a higher than expected percentage of admitted students are Asian, and lower than expected percentage are White, but this could be due to any number of factors: extra studying on the part of Asian students, data based on city-wide demographics instead of based only on school-age children, NAEP’s “Advanced” ranking is in the wrong place on the bell curve, or because a larger fraction of White students go to private schools.

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

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