(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)
How many times is the Department of Education going to mislead the public in connection with the city’s effort to eliminate the test used to select students for admission to its highest performing high schools?
Reasonable people can disagree about the value of changing admissions to Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and five other schools that use the Specialized High School Admissions Test. But facts should matter to the DOE.
The latest case in point concerns the city’s announcement that it was changing the Discovery Program to improve the numbers of black and Latino students at these schools. By taking an intensive summer program, Discovery is an alternative mechanism for disadvantaged students who just miss the SHSAT cutoff to gain admission to these highly selective schools.
In June, Mayor de Blasio announced support for a bill in Albany to gut the test. In the interim, the city called for revamping Discovery, telling the public: “Based on modeling of current offer patterns, an estimated 16 percent of offers would go to black and Latino students, compared to 9 percent currently.” The increase would be the result of limiting eligibility to Discovery to children attending a subset of the city’s middle schools having at least a 60 percent Economic Need Index calculated based on the neighborhood’s poverty level.
While the changes prevent many poor children of all races and ethnicities from being eligible for Discovery, a recently-filed lawsuit contends the changes are unconstitutional because in changing the way the city structured its Discovery program revamp – by limiting eligibility to the middle schools with at least 60 percent of the students living in poverty – the city disproportionately excludes poor Asian children at ineligible schools.
Joshua Wallack, a Deputy Schools Chancellor who is the DOE’s point person leading this effort, recently submitted an affidavit under oath to the court explaining that the DOE cannot say what impact the change will have on increasing black and Latino enrollment. He explained that “there are several factors beyond DOE’s control” that will affect the racial and ethnic composition of the students admitted through a changed Discovery program.
He also conceded the switch to only high-poverty schools may not improve diversity at the specialized high schools because Asian-American families are statistically the poorest demographic group in the city. He noted that last year 70 percent of students admitted from these high-poverty schools were Asian-American.
On one level, the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation hopes the city’s Discovery changes do result in increased enrollment of children from underrepresented communities. That is why we have urged the city to change the Discovery program to take into account children who are educationally disadvantaged by expanding eligibility without regard to qualifying for free lunch for children attending schools that currently send few if any students to specialized schools; because of segregated housing patterns this change would likely increase the number of black and Latino students qualifying for Discovery without penalizing poor students of all races who are being excluded because of the change.
But on another level, we are appalled that the DOE would initiate significant changes without adequate review and study. The city’s modeling was based on only looking at one year of data, which can undermine its accuracy. There should be more than “optics” in play when it comes to disrupting a system that is producing the highest-achieving high schools in the city.
This is not the first time that the DOE has misled the public on this topic. While the DOE claims replacing the SHSAT with a range of more subjective metrics will have no impact on student preparation for the college-level coursework required in specialized schools beginning in the ninth grade, the New York City Independent Budget Office just released a report showing that 500 students scoring below grade level on the state’s math assessment would likely be admitted to the specialized high schools under the mayor’s proposed changes.
The DOE’s hostility to the SHSAT knows no limits and apparently drives officials to suppress the truth whenever it is inconvenient to their view. This year saw the forced release of the DOE’s study done five years ago proving that the SHSAT was both a reliable and valid predictor of student performance at the high schools. No explanation has been offered for why they suppressed this information and kept it from the public.
But the major inconvenient truth the DOE continues to ignore is that demographic results of the SHSAT directly reflect the inadequate advanced academic programming (especially in so-called STEM subjects like science and math) it provides to most children in underrepresented communities. When that advanced programming was offered in middle schools in every district, demographics at specialized schools more closely mirrored the city at large. Once the city systematically eliminated those programs in black and Latino neighborhoods, those students were denied tools to let them succeed on the test and in the schools.
We know students from all communities can succeed on the SHSAT and in the schools when given the tools, since they did in the past. If the DOE would do the hard work of restoring Gifted and Talented and enhanced and accelerated coursework in every community, we could close the demographic gap at the specialized schools.
When government denies the truth and makes public policy on false assumptions, we get the worst of both worlds: effective change does not take place, and additional harm can result. It’s time for the DOE to face the truth and start doing something about the real problem. School system leaders can start by going to our Save the SHSAT website, where we have laid out just such a plan.
Larry Cary, a Manhattan lawyer, is the President of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.