Mayor de Blasio (photo: Rob Bennett, Mayor's Office)
As this school year began last week for over one million students, Mayor Bill de Blasio took advantage of the first day of classes to publicly highlight his efforts to improve the educational offerings of New York City schools. The mayor is now doing so under his banner “Equity and Excellence” agenda.
There is a long way to go. Currently, only about 38 percent of the students in our elementary schools are reading at grade level. About 70 percent of students graduate high school. Of those graduating, large numbers are not prepared to do college-level course work -- nearly 80 percent of our high school graduates attending CUNY community colleges must take remedial courses in reading, writing, and math.
According to one study, only students lucky enough to get into 34 of the system’s 428 high school programs that report graduation statistics have a decent shot at making it through college successfully.
To many, the challenges seem overwhelming. Because of their magnitude, I applaud Mayor de Blasio for recognizing the problems and trying to do something about them by adding pre-kindergarten, expanding course offerings, hiring more guidance counselors, and focusing on reading on grade level by third grade.
Unfortunately, instead of recognizing the outstanding performance of schools like Brooklyn Tech, which use a Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the criteria for gaining admission, the mayor also used opening day to bash these test-in schools by repeating debunked mythology about the need for multiple criteria to correct for a test that supposedly limits diversity.
Contrary to the mayor, according to NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools, substituting multiple criteria for the test “would not appreciably increase the proportion of Black students admitted and alarmingly several of these alternative criteria would actually decrease the number of Black students offered” admission. The root problem for the demographic outcomes of the test, and the mayor’s initiatives recognize it, is that our school system provides unequal educational opportunities for many of the children in our city’s black and Hispanic communities.
Newsweek magazine recently published its annual list of the top high schools in the country doing an outstanding job of educating students from families qualifying for free and subsidized lunch, the criteria used in educational circles for measuring poverty. These schools are not only educationally exemplary – among the top 500 in the nation - but given the poverty levels of their student bodies, they are considered off the charts, so to speak, for producing college-ready graduates as measured by graduation rates and passing scores on Advanced Placement tests. New York City had five of the top ten schools in the nation on Newsweek’s “disadvantaged” list.
Of the five, four were test-in high schools, including Brooklyn Tech. Townsend Harris, which uses multiple admissions criteria, was the only other city school making the top ten list. Townsend’s admissions criteria include consideration of the applicant’s middle school grades in English, math, social studies and science; scores on state tests in language arts and math; and middle school attendance and punctuality. According to the Department of Education, black students make up only 5.6 percent of Townsend Harris’ student body. By comparison, black students at Brooklyn Tech are 7.5 percent of the student body. While Townsend is home to 64 black students, Brooklyn Tech educates 417.
The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which I head, is working with Tech to increase the number of its black, Hispanic, and female students. We are in our third year of running a successful pilot STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) Pipeline program which targets underrepresented middle schools in Brooklyn. With the help this year of $250,000 from the New York State Legislature we doubled the number of students in our program. In the past, we have had great success and we hope to do more with this additional funding.
The Legislature also added money to fund programs at the other test-in schools, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, to reach out to middle schoolers from underrepresented communities and prepare them to succeed on the SHSAT and to do well at a specialized school once admitted.
Our efforts, along with the DOE’s, to improve diversity at the test-in schools are important. But more must still be done. The DOE should revive the Specialized High School Discovery Program, which is moribund at most of the test-in schools but is the legally available alternative mechanism for disadvantaged students to gain admission to these schools. Highly effective for promoting ethnic and racial diversity in the past, economically disadvantaged applicants just missing the cutoff scores took summer classes to demonstrate mastery of skills needed to do the advanced coursework required by these schools.
Because poverty rates are now roughly equal among black, Hispanic, and Asian families living in New York City, to be effective a revived Discovery program should also redefine “disadvantaged” to include attending a poorly performing or poorly represented middle school. Because of segregated housing patterns, this would help deal effectively with the educational inequality suffered by too many of the students in our city’s black and Hispanic communities.
The city’s school system is not fair. We all know that. But that said, four of the top ten schools in the nation for working class, immigrant, minority and low-income families are test-in schools here in New York City.
I applaud Mayor de Blasio and the DOE for continuing to work on improving educational excellence and diversity in our schools, but it does little good to attack a test giving every test-taker an equal and fair shot at gaining admission, especially since elimination of the test as the lone admissions factor would negatively affect diversity at these special schools.
Larry Cary is a Manhattan lawyer and president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.