Equity & Diversity

What’s Next for New York’s Elite High Schools Now That De Blasio’s Diversity Plan Is Dead

By Christina A. Samuels — June 27, 2019 5 min read
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Last summer, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio sparked a furor when he proposed increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the city’s elite high schools, in part by doing away with the test that is the sole key to admission.

But the mayor’s proposal fizzled out in the state legislature, which adjourned this month without taking action on a bill to change the state-mandated entrance requirements for the schools. Considered the crown jewels of the 1 million-student district, they include Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School.

So what happens now?

School leaders say they haven’t given up on trying to increase enrollment of black and Hispanic students in the eight high schools that rely on an assessment called the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT. Out of 895 freshman slots in the most selective school, Stuyvesant, only seven were offered to black students for the upcoming academic year.

“We’ve moved the conversation forward, yet we’re going to be confronted with the same unacceptable status quo next year,” said Richard A. Carranza, the city schools’ chancellor. “Adults are standing in the way of what’s right for New York City’s children. The underlying reality of segregated specialized high schools will not change until we eliminate the test.”

Fierce Opposition to Eliminating Admissions Test

But opponents of the plan to do away with the test—de Blasio proposed guaranteeing admission to the top 7 percent of the city’s middle school students instead—said the mayor and chancellor were on a divisive and racist path. More than half of the students enrolled in the specialized high schools are Asian.

Wai Wah Chin, the president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, said the focus should be on improving all schools so that students are better prepared for the admissions test, as well as increasing the number of city programs for gifted and talented students. Re-establishing that feeder pipeline will take time, she said, as opposed to the district’s “hasty, patched-up non-solution.”

“We should not have the number of failing schools that we have,” said Chin. “We have to have leadership that can get beyond seeing everything by race. That’s something that we do not have right now.”

The issue of diversity at the elite high schools took on even more urgency this spring, when the latest admissions results were released. Overall, black and Hispanic students made up just over 10 percent of the students offered seats for fall 2019 at the selective high schools, even though they make up roughly 70 percent of the city’s overall student enrollment.

A little over half of admissions offers were made to Asian students, who represent about 16 percent of the district’s overall population. About 29 percent of admissions slots were made to white students, who are 15 percent of the New York’s district’s overall student population.

And the admissions results came just days after news of the blockbuster “Varsity Blues” federal investigation, which revealed the criminal lengths that some parents went through to ensure their children were admitted to top colleges. While unrelated, the elite high schools debate fed into a larger conversation about how power and privilege affect educational opportunities.

For example, a cottage industry in New York has sprung up around prepping for the high school admissions test. But the Bronx, home to the largest number of black and Hispanic students, has the lowest number of test prep centers, the New York Times reported. Plus, the paper reported that many families could not afford the programs or just didn’t know about them.

New York Trying Other Methods to Increase Diversity in Elite High Schools

Since action at the state level has failed, the city plans to continue expanding some programs aimed at increasing enrollment of black and Hispanic students in its elite high schools.

For example, one initiative allows students in underrepresented areas to take the admissions test at their school on a weekday, rather than traveling to a central location on a weekend. The district is also increasing seats in a city-funded prep program, as well as growing the number of slots in a program aimed at admitting students who fall just short of the entry cutoff but take a summer preparatory course.

But those efforts alone won’t move the needle sufficiently, say those who want to get rid of the single test. Nor would increasing the number of elite high schools or gifted and talented programs, they say. Four of the eight schools that use the admissions test opened since 2002 and black and Hispanic admissions offers are low at those newer schools as well.

Admissions to gifted programs in New York was also overhauled in 2008, during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Now, gifted identification is also based solely on test scores. And after that testing plan was put in place, black and Hispanic enrollment in district gifted programs dropped.

New York isn’t the only district struggling with this issue. Chicago has created an admissions policy for its selective high schools that takes into account a student’s socioeconomic tier, as well as test scores and grades. The student demographics in Chicago’s top high schools come closer to mirroring the district’s overall enrollment.

In New York, however, any major changes may be hard to come by.

“Now, if anything, there’s greater opposition to changing the test than there was a year ago,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College.

While those who want to get rid of the test have been unable to coalesce around an alternative, Bloomfield said, powerful supporters of the current admissions system have been able to focus time and money on maintaining the status quo. And de Blasio, who has entered the race for the U.S. presidency, expended little political capital on his proposal, he said.

But the issue isn’t going to go away, said Bloomfield, who supports doing away with the test. Early next year, another round of admissions decisions will be released.

De Blasio “let the genie out of the bottle when he came up with his proposal,” Bloomfield said. “It’s hard to put that genie back.”

Photo: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during a news conference in Newark, N.J., in May 2018. His push to eliminate a single test that determines admissions to the city’s elite high schools failed to even get a hearing in the state legislature before lawmakers adjourned for the session last week. De Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have been calling for a major overhaul to admissions to increase the numbers of black and Latino students.—Julio Cortez/AP

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