Response: De Blasio’s attempt to reduce the number of Asian-American students in the Discovery Program is unconstitutional

Recently, Attorney “Chris Kieser” wrote an opinion on the SHSAT, Specialized High Schools, and the Discovery Program.  Sadly, being an opinion piece, there was little fact-checking. 

Mr. Kieser’s comments are quoted below.

New York City’s specialized high schools are the envy of the nation.

The above statement seems to be the standard opening to the SHSAT defense but is never backed by empirical data.  Any results from Specialized High Schools should be statistically corrected for “Selection Bias” [1], and also the size of the student pool in New York City. 

With about 1.1 Million students, NYC is the largest school district in the nation.  Therefore skimming the top students in a pool that wide, even inaccurately, will result in impressive outcomes.

For parents who cannot afford to send their children to private school, the specialized high schools are their only option for a top-flight secondary education. 

The above quote is simply false. New York has many excellent high schools available to parents. 

These parents often work long hours to give their children the best possible opportunity for a coveted seat in these desirable schools.

Yes, parents of all backgrounds work hard to get the best possible opportunity for the children.   Many parents spend $2000-4000 or more in special “prep” schools for the single SHSAT exam. 

And too often this figure represents 5-10% of their annual household income.  It’s disappointing that NY lawmakers support a system that requires this investment.

Although this parenting behavior is commendable, these prepped students are not necessarily smarter than their peers.  They are though, more capable of scoring highly on a single 50-60 math question and 50-60 English multiple-choice question exam.

Prepped students are taught the quirks of the SHSAT and other test-taking strategies [2].  They’re introduced to concepts just a few months before their peers. None of this suggests merit.

Unlike many private schools, the specialized high schools don’t care about your family’s income, race or whether you attended a prestigious middle school. They admit students based on an objective exam, the Specialized High School Admission Test.

Notice, Mr. Keiser does not mention gender.  Because the SHSAT exam is notoriously biased against girls as well [3].

In this context “Bias” simply means that the exam is sensitive to external factors that it was not designed to measure.  “Bias” does not mean “racist” or “intolerant” in this case.

Hence, if we have an exam that’s only given on Saturdays but a group of students have a religious holiday on that day.  Then we may see a bias against that group of students.  We’re not arguing that the test designers wear pillowcases and burn crosses.  But rather that we’ve managed to unwittingly create a system of measuring merit that does not accurately do so.

 Every eighth grader in New York City can sign up for the SHSAT and, with a high enough score, attend one of the city’s best schools. It’s a purely meritocratic approach to admissions.

No mention of the fact that students learn much of the material on the SHSAT in prep and not in class.  Or that the quality of the prep classes varies by cost.  Or that some feeder schools offer SHSAT prep, while most poor schools do not. 

Meritocratic, as in based on your access to a suitable and effective SHSAT prep program [4].

Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza believe that this fair and transparent approach has led to too many Asian-American students in the specialized high schools.

This is the unfortunate and dangerous tribalism fanned by Mr. Keiser. An all too common approach to dividing Americans.

Mayor de Blasio has stated publicly that that “Multiple-measures” are more accurate and should be used instead of a single-measure multiple-choice exam.  Many many teaching groups and teachers unions have publicly agreed [5]

In the field of psychometric testing, there’s little argument that the Mayor’s correct on this issue.  

Discovery is open to rising freshmen who scored just below the SHSAT cutoff for admission and who are certified as economically disadvantaged. Students who complete the program gain admission to the high school that fall. Discovery has traditionally accounted for less than 5% of the total number of students admitted to the specialized high schools.

Traditionally” does not factor in.  The mayor has legal control of the discovery program.  At times, his predecessors did not run any discovery programs.

To address this “injustice,” de Blasio and Carranza decided to limit the program to certain middle schools that score 60% or higher on the city’s “Economic Need Index,” a measure that estimates the percentage of economically disadvantaged students attending a particular school. Then they expanded Discovery to 20% of the seats at each specialized high school, effectively locking the ineligible schools out of a large portion of available spots.

There are serious issues with using Free Reduced-priced Lunches ( FRL ) as a measure of poverty [6]. FRL may be a useful shorthand, but its accuracy has been widely challenged, as the above link shows.

The NYC Department of Education has instead used a more accurate measure of poverty.  The “Economic Need Index” correlates to the schools hardest hit by poverty, homelessness, lack of resources, etc.  This is NOT a proxy for race.

Ineligible schools will still have access to 80% of specialized high school seats.  Almost 10,000 of the 12,000 seats.

But city officials calculated the school’s Economic Need Index as just 57.9%, rendering its students ineligible for the new Discovery Program. No matter how hard they work, Christa McAuliffe students cannot compete for a full one-fifth of the seats at the specialized high schools.

Christa McAuliffe would be ineligible for only 20% of SHSAT offers.  Earlier, they received over 4% of total SHSAT offers [7]

Losing 20% of McAuliffe’s offers would have them earning about 170 SHSAT offers, still more than most entire school districts combined.

Discovery should remain a pathway for economically disadvantaged students of all races to enter the specialized high schools. 

Agreed.  And that’s exactly what Mayor de Blasio has proposed.  Based on a more accurate measure of poverty than FRL.

Government officials should not use race or ethnic background to decide who gets to attend the city’s best schools.

Also Agreed.  And if anyone proposes this I’ll be the first to stand up and disagree with them.