Civil Rights Group Questions Specialized Schools’ Admissions in N.Y.C.

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — September 27, 2012 2 min read
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The NAACP Legal Defense Fund today filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights about New York City’s specialized high schools’ admissions process. The complaint alleges that reliance on an unproven test as the sole determinant for admissions leads to disproportionately low numbers of African-American and Latino students at the schools and violates the civil rights of many minority students who are not admitted.

The Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, is taken by approximately 30,000 students hoping to gain admission to eight elite high schools in New York City, including the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School—but, the complaint claims, the test has never been proven to reliably predict the “knowledge, skills, and abilities essential to satisfactory participation in the programs offered by the specialized high schools.” The claim also questions the validity of depending on any single factor to determine admissions to the schools.

The complaint was filed against the New York City Department of Education and the New York State Department of Education and says the admissions policies violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The racial demographics of the student bodies of the select high schools are, indeed, very different than those of the district as a whole. For instance, only 19 of the 967 students offered admission to Stuyvesant’s 8th grade class this year are African-American, and only 32 are Latino. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, more African-American students did gain admittance to the schools this year than in the past; but the low numbers still have an impact on black students’ experiences. Stuyvesant’s been in the news again recently due to a cheating scandal.

In an interview, Damon Hewitt, the director of the NAACP LDF’s education practice group, tied the case to “the national debate over the misuse of standardized tests, and to a broader debate about how we define merit.” He said the specialized high schools’ use of the admissions tests is particularly narrow and “myopic.” The complaint says that including middle school grades, teacher recommendations, community service, or other factors would lead to an admissions process that is more just.

Hewitt clarified that the complaint does not claim that the test itself is biased, but that its ability to predict performance has not been proven.

He also said that several advocacy groups focused on Asian-American students’ rights backed up the group—support that’s likely important as the specialized high schools have large numbers of Asian-American students. Hewitt said the groups supported the claim because a more balanced admissions process would help students from underrepresented Asian-American subgroups or other students who don’t fit the “model minority” stereotype.

This case is the first time the NAACP LDF (a New York-based legal advocacy group focused on racial justice that is not part of the NAACP) has taken on testing and admissions in quite this way, Hewitt said. But he suggested that the complaint might pave the way for investigations into whether admissions into specialized schools or select programs in other districts are also discriminatory.


John C. Liu, the Comptroller of New York City and a graduate of Bronx Science, one of the specialized high schools the complaint refers to, put out a statement addressing the complaint. Here’s what he had to say:

The woeful lack of diversity at our Specialized High Schools is troubling and something we have been watching closely. The admissions process -- a single, grueling test -- is flawed and must be changed. Admissions criteria must be broadened, the test must be analyzed for predictive bias, and the City must do more recruiting for those schools in communities of color.

Sadly, the lack of students of color at the Specialized High Schools is only one piece of a larger puzzle. As we mention in our study just released today, we estimate that four out of every five New York City public high-school students, or 79%, do not earn two- or four-year college degrees within 12 years of beginning the 9th grade, which has significant consequences for their lifetime earnings and the City’s economic future.

Education is the key to spreading prosperity, and we have a shared responsibility to make sure our top high schools are fair and inclusive.

Liu wrote about just this issue earlier this year at the Huffington Post.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.