Student debaters (photo: @NYCschools)
Last week, 5,000 eighth graders got the exciting news that they were offered admission to one of the city's eight test-in Specialized High Schools, which offer a quality public school education unmatched in the country. But while the vast majority come from poor, working class and immigrant families, as has always been the case, once again far too few come from the black and Latino communities.
Black and Latino students comprise a large majority in the city's public school system and should be better represented among those offered admission to its top high schools. Unfortunately, this year about 500 fewer black and Latino students sat for the test compared to last year, and the percentage of these students offered admission declined as well.
The school system, like the city it serves, is heavily segregated, but this lack of racial and ethnic diversity in our test-in schools is unacceptable for many reasons. Still, doing away with the test as the sole criteria for deciding admission and switching to inherently subjective multiple criteria would do little to ameliorate the imbalance and could make it worse according to last year's study by NYU's Institute for Education and Social Policy.
The city must instead invest the resources – both financial and intellectual – and take proactive steps on both a long-term and an immediate basis in order to diversify admissions to our best schools.
A program of enriched educational opportunity must be instituted in every neighborhood to permit all children to have a fair chance of success on the test and in life. Gifted and Talented Programs must exist in every district. Enriched education, especially in math and English language courses, must be available in every middle school in the city. When 53 percent of the students at test-in schools come from only 15 percent of middle schools, the fundamental answer to the problem of underrepresentation is clear.
Immediate actions must be taken to increase the numbers of students from underrepresented communities sitting for the test. And, increased attention must be paid to better preparing underrepresented students to do well enough on the test to gain admission. There is no fixed passing grade on the test. "Passing" is simply a function of scoring high enough to rank among the 5,000 highest scoring students to qualify for admission to one of the schools.
The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which I head, with the support of National Grid, has worked with Brooklyn Tech to run an innovative pilot STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Pipeline program for the past three years that reaches out to underrepresented middle schools, identifies children of promise and provides them with accelerated coursework and test prep. The program starts with rising seventh graders and offers them an intensive two year experience with classes during the summers and on Saturdays during the school year.
We have had good success during the first two years that students in the program have sat for the test. This year, students received offers from Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Latin, all specialized schools. Half of last year's students in the program – and nearly two-thirds this year – offered admission to Tech are black or Latino.
We are encouraged by the support for diversity at specialized high schools shown by Albany legislators in both chambers who are proposing dedicating funds to create similar pipeline programs in every test-in school. This would cost less than $1.3 million a year, or $2.5 million over two years, and enable all eight specialized high schools to run outreach and test preparation programs in underrepresented middle schools throughout the city.
While Mayor de Blasio is committed to combatting educational and economic inequality, it is still the case that a child's chances of educational success are closely correlated to where he or she grows up. Because test-in schools should serve students from every neighborhood, there is a special obligation to give all promising students tools to succeed.
The answer is not to do away with an admissions test, but to make that promise of social equality real by committing resources and intellectual firepower so that every academically promising child, regardless of their neighborhood, has a fair chance of succeeding on the test, and beyond.
Larry Cary is president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.