Gotham Gazette

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Real Answers to Improve Diversity at the Specialized High Schools

bk tech hs

Brooklyn Tech HS (photo via school website)

Critics of the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the sole criteria for admission to Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and five other schools continue to lament the low admissions rates of African-American and Latino students. While they do so, two remarkable developments occurred last week when the latest admission results were announced.

First, NYU's Research Alliance for New York City Schools released a significant new research report. It shows many of the changes being urged on elected policy makers - such as using state assessment test scores, grades, and attendance - either would result in little change in the admissions rates for these groups or would actually result in fewer black and more white students being offered admission.

The study states that the only way to make dramatic demographic change through altering the admissions criteria was to eliminate the test and substitute guaranteed admission to the top ten percent of students at each middle school. But it makes clear that this would come at the significant cost of lowering the academic preparation of the student body to do the rigorous coursework that make the specialized test-in schools the turbo-charged engines of advancement to the best colleges for the children of New York City's working class, poor, and immigrant families. (Two-thirds of the city public school graduates attending Harvard, Princeton, or Yale graduate from only three high schools - Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, and Bronx Science - where 50% of the combined student body qualifies for free or subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.)

Given this dilemma, the NYU Research Alliance urged policy makers to consider better outreach to underrepresented communities to raise the number of high-performing students who sit for the test and offer better free test prep to ensure they are prepared to do well on the test. That is the same prescription advocated by alumni when we have urged lawmakers not to change state law mandating the sole use of the SHSAT for admissions. That state law covers Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. Five additional specialized high schools created administratively by the old Board of Education also use the test to determine admissions.

The other relevant development last week is the wildly positive demographic results obtained at Brooklyn Tech – where I graduated in 1970 and now head the Alumni Foundation – resulting from innovative efforts made recently by the school and its alumni. Improvements in the numbers of African-American and Latino students being admitted to the school show that change is possible without moving away from the SHSAT.

What did Tech and its alumni do? Quite a bit: A consistent outreach effort was undertaken, targeted at many Brooklyn middle schools sending few or no students to Tech. The school increased the number of tours offered to prospective applicants. With the assistance of the Alumni Foundation, the school also developed a "Tech in the Middle" project which brought middle school classes into the building for special sessions and tours which enabled teachers to speak about the opportunities created by getting a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. Alumni went to Community Education Council meetings to speak with principals and parents about the school. Seventh grade students visiting Brooklyn Tech were given copies of the Specialized High Schools Student Handbook, which means information about the test being distributed to students a year in advance of their sitting for the exam. Through the efforts of the Alumni Foundation, a print and television public relations campaign was rolled out highlighting positive news about STEM education and the school.

In partnership with the Alumni Foundation and National Grid New York, which is led by Ken Daly, a Tech graduate, and has employed dozens of diverse Tech graduates, the school announced a pilot STEM pipeline program aimed at high-achieving middle school students to encourage them to study STEM subjects and pursue energy carriers.

National Grid is dedicated to developing the next generation of science, energy, and environmental leaders to develop sustainable energy solutions and tackle climate change. National Grid pledged $300,000 for this effort and the Alumni Foundation underwrote the costs of providing free test prep to the group through the Science Schools Initiative. This program is different than any other because it aims to get kids excited about future careers after studying STEM while also preparing them for the test. In addition, we conducted a special high school admissions session with the parents of these students to teach them about the process - parental buy-in is very important to the success of the program.

The results of the first cohort taking the test have been spectacular: 87 percent were offered admission to a specialized high school. Of the 30 students completing the year-long program who took the SHSAT, 16 were admitted to Brooklyn Tech and 10 to Stuyvesant. (The remaining four will also be going to great high schools, one each to Beacon, Bard, Bedford Academy, and Brooklyn High School for the Arts.)

The demographic results were also encouraging, with 50 percent of the students admitted to Tech being African-American or Latino, and 62 percent being female. Our program also managed to boost Stuyvesant's demographic admissions statistics with two of the ten black students admitted this year having come through our program.

While offers of admission increased overall at Brooklyn Tech by 6 percent, offers of admission to African-American and Latino students surged by 12 percent and 22 percent, respectively, when compared to the year before. Over 300 African-American and Latino students were offered admission to Brooklyn Tech this year, reversing a downward trend of many years.

So what does this mean for policy makers? It means that significant efforts can be successfully undertaken to improve the admissions of African-American and Latino students without sacrificing the educational opportunity guaranteed by use of the test as the sole criteria for admissions. Thought should be given to having public monies intelligently spent to scale our STEM pipeline program and also bring it to Stuyvesant and Bronx Science and the other specialized science high schools.

We recognize that other efforts also need to be made to improve diversity, promote fairness, and maintain merit at these schools. Better and more enriched educational opportunities must be made available in the elementary and middle schools serving predominantly African-American and Latino communities. A refitted Discovery Program can significantly increase the numbers of these students at all the specialized schools by redefining eligibility for the program to include attending an underperforming middle school. Discovery offers students just missing the cutoff score for admissions a second chance to qualify through summer courses preparing them to meet the challenges posed by the rigorous curriculum of the specialized schools. The program once sent hundreds of eighth-graders to the specialized high schools, but has since fallen into disuse.

Other types of efforts could be made to improve the situation at little cost to the public. Thirty minutes could be added to the test to permit students not taking test prep the additional time needed to complete all the questions on the exam, for example. We want to see a practice test administered in the seventh grade to enable children to know a year in advance what they need to study to do well on the actual exam.

We have fought to keep "the test" as the sole criteria for admission because proposals to add additional criteria pose ineffective answers to the problem of declining diversity at these schools and risk destroying what is good and unique about them.

Those of us who benefited from the rigorous education provided by the specialized high schools agree that the lack of diversity is a problem the city should address, but not through abandoning the meritocratic test as the sole criterion for admission. The challenge the city faces is to identify high-performing students at younger ages – perhaps through their scores on standardized state tests – and nurture those children to prepare them for the rigors of the SHSAT and the schools' curriculum.

There are more than 700 programs at 400 high schools in the public school system, and there ought to be room for a handful of test-in only schools just as there needs to be schools using multiple criteria for admissions decisions. There are real answers that will help diversify the specialized schools. The Department of Education and our elected officials need to consider and implement them.

Larry Cary is the president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation and the chair of the Coalition of Specialized High Schools Alumni Organizations.

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