Is the use of a single test the fairest way to determine who should be admitted to elite public high schools? In a nutshell, that’s the issue affecting three high schools in New York City (“The Plot Against Merit,” City Journal, Summer 2014).
New York State’s Hecht-Calandra Law of 1971 requires the administration of “a competitive, objective and scholastic achievement examination” as the sole and exclusive basis for admission. The instrument used is a two-and-a-half-hour entrance exam known as the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test that measures math, verbal and logical reasoning skills. The problem with this strategy is that it has resulted in a tiny fraction of the number of black and Hispanic students in New York City being admitted to Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech. ( At five other highly selective schools, students can be admitted on the basis of other criteria without violating state law.) As a result, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in Sept. 2012 charging that the policy violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination by federal aid recipients.
It’s important to emphasize that the suit does not allege intentional discrimination. Instead, it is based on what is known in law as the “disparate impact” of the exam. To defend themselves, I think the three schools have to demonstrate that the test-only policy is directly related to “the job.” In this case, “the job” refers to academic performance at the three schools. In other words, passing the test is necessary for success there.
Critics will maintain that qualities other than those measured by the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test account for success. I don’t doubt that this is sometimes the case. But that’s not what the lawsuit is about. It seeks to assure that the number of black and Hispanic students in these three high schools is proportionate to their overall number in New York City. It’s the disparate impact argument that I find so troubling because I believe lowering standards does a disservice to all stakeholders.
I strongly support racial diversity in all public schools. But rather than relax standards in order to engineer a racially balanced student population in the three high schools in question, I think the focus should be on the elementary and middle-schools that have shortchanged too many black and Hispanic students. I’ll bet that if the schools these students attended prior to taking the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test were better, they would have little trouble being admitted. Enrolling students of any race with academic deficits sets them up for failure.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.