Gotham Gazette

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Remaining Elite, Ensuring Diversity: Boston, Chicago & New York Wrestle with Admissions to Special High Schools

bx hs sci

Bronx HS of Science (photo: Tina Fineberg/NYTimes)

In New York City they're specialized high schools, in Boston exam schools, and in Chicago they're known as selective enrollment high schools. Despite the different labels, these schools are all part of a small group of elite public high schools in the United States. They utilize special exams, and in all cases but New York City, additional measures of merit and aptitude to selectively admit students.

"In a country with more than 20,000 public high schools, we found just 165 of these schools, known as exam schools," wrote Chester E. Finn, Jr., co-author of "Exam Schools," in a 2012 New York Times op-ed. "They educate about 1 percent of students. Nineteen states have none. Only three big cities have more than five such schools (Los Angeles has zero)."

elite schools map

As is the case with all public resources that are both scarce and coveted, the processes by which students gain admission to these institutions are highly scrutinized and subject to the ebb and flow of legislative and legal tides across the nation.

In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and at the peak of nationwide efforts to desegregate school districts, racial quotas were part of the admissions policies to selective enrollment high schools in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. The quotas in all three cities were abandoned, beginning in the mid-90s, because of lawsuits challenging their constitutionality or because court-ordered desegregation decrees were simply lifted.

Here in New York City, much of the decades-old conversation about the city's specialized schools centers around the state's test-only mandate for entry. "The test only policy is a real anomaly," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank. "New York is the only city that does it."

On October 25th and 26th, thousands of eighth graders sat for the exam, with hopes of being admitted to one of New York City's eight test admissions-based public high schools. Students vying for seats in the 2015-2016 freshman cohort may be the last to take the multiple choice exam in its current form. The de Blasio administration is on the verge of partnering with a new company to facilitate the specialized high schools testing program. The City's recent request for proposals (RFP) from prospective vendors includes the prospect of adding an essay to the exam, in addition to aligning its content with the common core and translating it into several languages.

Tweaking the exam is about all the power that the City can exercise over the admissions policy to its specialized high schools. The test-only mandate for entry has been enshrined in state law since 1972. De Blasio, though, spoke about altering the admissions process to these schools as a mayoral candidate and has followed up similarly since taking office. He has expressed a belief that a single multiple choice test can not adequately measure a young person's potential and a vision for more diverse student bodies at these elite schools.

The notion of changing the admissions criteria has caused quite a stir. The local debate is largely two fold: how to make the demographics of the schools' student bodies more reflective of the school system as a whole, and, how to maintain fair and objective metrics for entry that uphold the schools' rigorous learning environments.

The specialized schools' demographics as compared to the school system as a whole are startling: black and Latino students make up roughly 70% of the New York City school system, but were offered just 12% of seats in the 2014-2015 freshman classes at the specialized high schools.

"It remains very hard to maximize [these] two goals - academic achievement and equity - that are strongly related, " said Professor Floyd Hammack of New York University, who authored "Paths to Legislation or Litigation for Educational Privilege: New York and San Francisco Compared," an article comparing the historical trajectories of admissions to selective schools in the two cities.

In New York, there are varying opinions on the best way to tackle the dichotomy referenced by Hammack. Last June, for example, New York State legislators introduced a bill that would expand admissions criteria to include grade point average, attendance records, and scores on an exam that includes an essay. Although the bill did not gain much traction in the Legislature, the de Blasio administration and the city's teachers union, the UFT, have expressed support for the proposal.

Conversely, others like former State Assembly Member Michael Benjamin, an alumnus of (specialized) Bronx High School of Science, are firm proponents of the test-only system. At a recent panel event in Queens, Benjamin said that the City should focus on raising student achievement in middle schools, ensuring that high-potential students are identified early on and provided with ample opportunities to prepare for the exam.

"The issue is preparation to take the exam," Benjamin told Gotham Gazette. "We're not preparing the black and Hispanic kids in those low-performing middle schools to do well. We're not identifying the smart kids early on and giving them the support that they need."

Dr. Elissa Brown of Hunter College, a specialist in gifted education, also believes that "doing away with an admissions test is not the answer." She said that "using an admissions test for specialized high schools is appropriate because it is objective, fair, and administered in a standardized fashion."

A writing measure could be introduced, she noted. "For example, Hunter College High School employs a writing component as part of its admissions testing and has found it to be a valuable addition. However, GPAs are not an accurate predictor of ability and would introduce teacher bias," explained Brown. Hunter College High School is not one of the city's "specialized high schools." It is, however, an elite public high school, with its own selective admissions process.

As policymakers consider what, if anything, to do about the admissions process to the city's specialized schools and advocates seek to influence that decision-making, it is instructive to look at policies that other cities have in place for admission to their selective schools. While New York struggles with diversity at its special high schools and reconsiders its test-only admission system, Boston and Chicago have experienced parallel predicaments with very different outcomes.

New York
The New York City Department of Education is the largest school district in the country, serving over 1.1 million students in 1,800 schools. The system's chancellor, appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, is Carmen Fariña.

During the 2013-2014 school year, 78.9 percent of New York City students were eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. That year, students' racial demography broke down as follows:

  • Hispanic: 40.2%
  • African American: 28.3%
  • Asian: 15.3%
  • White: 14.5%

The city is home to nine designated selective enrollment public high schools, or specialized high schools, as they are known throughout the city and enshrined in state law. They serve students in grades nine through twelve. Currently, admissions to eight of them are based solely on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). The city's ninth specialized high school, LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, offers admission based on an audition and/or portfolio assessment.

  • Bronx High School of Science
  • Stuyvesant High School
  • Brooklyn Technical High School
  • The Brooklyn Latin School
  • High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at the City College of New York
  • High School of American Studies at Lehman College
  • Queens High School for the Sciences at York College
  • Staten Island Technical High School
  • Fiorello H. Laguardia H. High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts

During the 2013-2014 school year, 14,876 students were enrolled in the eight, test-admissions only, specialized high schools. Of those, 52.4 percent qualified for free or reduced-priced lunch and their racial demography broke down as follows:

  • Asian: 59.7%
  • White: 24.4%
  • Hispanic: 7.2%
  • African American: 5.6%

The SHSAT, a 2.5 hour, multiple choice exam, was codified into state law in 1972, as the only way to gain entry into three selective and high performing high schools: Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Technical, and Bronx Science.

The provision of New York law 2590, section g, known as Calandra-Hecht after the Bronx Senators that sponsored the bill, also included a stipulation to allow New York City's Board of Education (as it then existed) to designate and undesignate additional specialized high schools, to which the SHSAT-only admissions policy would apply.

The ranks of specialized high schools expanded from four to nine during Mayor Michael Bloomberg's tenure. The city's Board of Education, refashioned as the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) by the Bloomberg administration, established and/or designated five more specialized high schools between 2002 and 2006.

In order to "register, sit for, and receive results " for the SHSAT, students must be residents of New York City, current eighth-graders, or first time ninth-graders. When students take the exam, they must list, in order of preference, the schools to which they'd like to apply. Ultimately, admission into a specialized high school is determined by matching rank ordered SHSAT scores and school preferences.

Chicago's school district, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), serves about 400,000 students across 658 schools, making it the third largest school system in the United States. The Chief Executive Officer for CPS is Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

During the 2013-2014 school year, 85 percent of students received free and reduced-priced lunch. That year, its system-wide racial demography broke down as such:

  • Hispanic: 45.2%
  • African American: 39.7%
  • White: 9.2%
  • Asian: 3.5%

Chicago's equivalent of New York City's specialized high schools are its Selective Enrollment High Schools. Currently, Chicago has ten Selective Enrollment Public High Schools, serving students in grades 9-12. The schools are:

  • Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy
  • Jones College Prep
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School
  • Lane Tech College Prep High School
  • Lindblom Math & Science Academy
  • Northside College Preparatory High School
  • Walter Payton College Preparatory High School
  • South Shore International College Preparatory High School
  • George Westinghouse College Prep
  • Whitney M. Young Magnet High School

During the 2013-2014 school year 13,768 students were enrolled in the ten selective enrollment schools. The racial demography across the ten schools, taken together, breaks down as follows:

  • African American: 34.7%
  • Hispanic: 29.6%
  • White: 21.9%
  • Asian: 8.8%

The process for gaining entry into one of Chicago's selective enrollment public high schools is largely two-fold: 30 percent of seats are filled by matching the highest scores in a point system that combines a selective enrollment exam score with grades and seventh grade standardized test results with applicants' school choices; and about 70 percent of the seats are filled by matching top scorers distributed across four socio-economic tiers, or census tracts, with schools to which students apply.

However, up to five percent of seats are filled by school principals themselves, through a process called "Principal Discretion." In accordance with CPS guidelines, principals can admit students by considering additional criteria such as honors and awards, recommendations, and personal statements.

Chicago's Selective Enrollment Exam is not open to all students. In eighth grade, eligible students receive an invitation to take the multiple choice exam. Eligibility is based on students' 7th grade math and reading scores on annual standardized exams administered district wide.

Once students have taken the exam, they are ranked in a point system totalling 900. The admissions exam score accounts for up to 300 points, 7th grade standardized reading and math test results account for another 300 points, and 7th grade final grades account for the remaining 300. Thirty percent of seats are automatically allocated to top scoring students through this point system.

About 70 percent of seats are filled by picking an equal number of the highest scorers across four socio-economic tiers that encompass the City of Chicago. The entire city is divided into four tiers, or census tracts, based on family income, homeownership, educational attainment, percentage of single-parent households, and households where English is not the first language. Students are selected based on how they compare to applicants in the tier within which their household falls.

Since 2010, this is the Chicago Board of Education-approved admissions policy for selective enrollment high schools. The new system was devised after the 2009 lifting of a 1980 Supreme Court consent decree mandating the desegregation of Chicago public schools.

According to "Exam Schools," while the decree was in place, selective schools were subject to "racial balance" policies that prohibited their student bodies from having more than 30 percent of any racial group. "Applicants to selective-enrollment high schools [in Chicago] were sorted into 'minority' and 'non-minority' lists and admitted to schools by score according to their ethnic status," wrote Finn, Jr. and Huck.

Since 2009, the number of white students in Chicago's top schools has increased. According to CPS data analyzed by the Chicago Sun-Times in April 2014, "At Walter Payton College Prep [among the most coveted and high-performing of the schools] on the Near North Side more than 41 percent of freshmen admitted [over] the past four years have been white, compared with 29 percent in 2009."

Furthermore, the racial distribution of students across CPS's selective enrollment high schools is largely uneven. Northside, Payton, Jones, Whitney Young and Lane Tech, the highest ranking schools of the group, receive the largest proportion of white applicants and subsequently, white enrollees. Conversely, "Brooks, King, Lindblom, South Shore and Westinghouse see few applications from whites and have virtually no white students," wrote Tim Novak and Chris Fusco in the Sun-Times in April.

In July 2014, Chicago legislators held a hearing to examine the declining numbers of black students at the highest ranking of CPS' selective enrollment high schools. The Sun-Times reported that the chair of the City Council's education committee, Alderman Latasha Thomas, expressed concerns that "a federal judge's 2009 decision to vacate a desegregation consent decree," and the subsequent omission of race from the admissions policy, "has slowly resulted in 're-segregation' of the Chicago Public Schools."

Boston is a city of roughly 617,000 residents. Its school system, Boston Public Schools (BPS), serves about 57,000 students across 128 schools. John McDonough is the Interim Superintendent. During the 2013-2014 school year, 77.6 percent of BPS students received free or reduced priced lunch. That year, BPS racial demographics broke down as follows:

  • 40.4% Hispanic
  • 34.5% African American
  • 13.6% White
  • 8.6% Asian

Of Boston's 128 schools, three are categorized as exam schools. All three serve students in grades 7-12. They are:

  • Boston Latin Academy
  • Boston Latin School
  • The John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science

Students enter Boston Latin School and Boston Latin Academy in grades 7 and 9, while the O'Bryant School accepts students in grades 7, 9 and 10.

Boston stands out as having a long tradition of selective enrollment public schooling. Its exam schools are among the oldest in the nation. Boston Latin School, founded in 1635, is widely considered "the oldest school in America." Boston Latin Academy and O'Bryant were founded roughly 200 years later, in 1878 and 1893, respectively.

During the 2013-2014 school year 5,421 students were enrolled at an exam school. 52.9 percent of students across all three schools were eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. The racial demographics of the schools, taken together, broke down as follows:

  • White: 32.5%
  • Asian: 24.7%
  • African American: 21.9%
  • Hispanic: 18.2%

An entrance exam score and grade point average (GPA) are considered together for entry to one of BPS' exam schools. The exam, known as the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE), is multiple choice only and takes approximately two hours and ten minutes to complete.

Like Chicago, Boston was subject to a court-ordered desegregation decree. Specifically, it came in the form of an intra-neighborhood busing program instituted in 1974 - a program that led to considerable strife in the city. The last vestiges of the program were dismantled in 2013.

In line with the district-wide desegregation effort, Boston's three exam schools set aside 35 percent of their seats for black and Latino students. In 1995, a lawsuit brought on behalf of a white student who was rejected from Boston Latin School successfully challenged the quota system. The revised policy, designed and implemented in the wake of the suit, based 50 percent of offers solely on a GPA and test score combination and the remaining half on the same combination, in addition to consideration of applicants' racial background relative to other qualified applicants.

Despite the revisions, opposition to the inclusion of race in the admissions policy continued. In 1998, a second lawsuit brought on behalf of another rejected applicant ended with a federal court striking down the use of racial preferences in Boston Latin School's admissions policy completely. Today, the admissions policy to all three exam schools is a strict combination of GPA and ISEE scores, with no consideration of race.

During the 2013-2014 school year, black and Latino students filled about 40 percent of seats in the exam schools, despite making up roughly 65% of the Boston public school system . Boston Latin School, the number one ranked high school in the state of Massachusetts by US News, has the smallest percentage of black and Latino students.

According to Kim Janey, Senior Project Director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, an important part of getting student demographics at exam schools to be more reflective of those district-wide is increasing access to information about them and opportunities to prepare for the ISEE early on.

The low representation of black and Latino students as a whole is "a complex issue," Janey told Gotham Gazette, partly "rooted in whether or not children have equitable access to opportunities to compete at high levels," as they do when applying to selective schools.

Ultimately, as Janey points out, the debates around admissions policies to selective public schools, in Boston and across the nation, boil down to access. Are the terms of access to these scarce and coveted institutions fair - and where does the measurement of fairness begin? Considerations of poverty and race continue to dominate many education conversations, but factoring them into school admissions policies has proven both controversial and difficult.

In looking at New York, Boston, and Chicago, it is clear that in New York, the students of the elite schools are the least reflective of the city's broader student population. This while the city remains the only one in the country to use test-only admissions.

But, Chicago, which sees the closest match in representation of the three cities, has the most of these elite schools and issues of diversity across the schools in that group.

Although New York City's specialized admissions policy is codified in the state Legislature, its current mayoral administration has broken away from the status quo by expressing interest in moving beyond a test only admissions policy to its specialized high schools. The mayor has control over the status of five of the schools, while the original three remain enshrined in state law as test-only admissions schools.

Whether a single measure or many are good or bad, said NYU Professor Floyd Hammack, "depends on who ultimately benefits," a phenomenon that changes as a city's population does. And so, the debate in New York City, and elsewhere, continues.

Special School Table

by Katrina Shakarian for Gotham Gazette

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