SHSAT Assembly Testimony: Race, Gifted & Talented, and Tracking in NYC: Dr. Roda, et. al

[pdf-embedder url=””]

Below are some excerpts from Dr. Roda’s paper on SHSAT, gifted and talented, and tracking in NYC.

In particular, our research-based recommendations, described below, call on the Chancellor and Mayor to phase out G&T programs and replace them with equitable and integrated desegregated schools and classroom settings with culturally responsive and sustaining curriculum. We also strongly recommend that the city eliminate test-based enrollment screens at the elementary, middle, and high schools across the city and replace them with a more holistic approach that includes diversity targets.

Admissions at New York City’s Specialized High Schools (SHS) is fiercely debated. One proposal for addressing the dismal percentage of Black and Latinx students admitted to these schools is to expand the number of G&T programs in elementary and middle schools. Supporters offer this solution in contrast to the mayor’s proposal to diversify the SHS with guaranteed spots for a set percentage of high achieving students from middle schools across the city.1 They hope that expanding the number of G&T seats will help Black and Latinx students compete for admission into selective middle and high schools—essentially diversifying the G&T to SHS pipeline.

What these pro-G&T advocates are overlooking, however, is that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein already tried that approach back in 2008, and their measure failed, largely because in adopting a single test for admissions they traded one inequitable method for another. Research has shown a tight correlation between test scores and socio-economic status (SES). It should come as no surprise, then, that test-based admissions systems achieve segregation, especially in school systems like New York City where race and class are tightly intertwined. Predictably, year after year, the G&T student population is disproportionately White and Asian with approximately 70 percent testing into G&T while only comprising 30 percent of the overall public school population. Meanwhile, 30 percent of Black and Latinx students are enrolled in
the G&T programs, compared to 70 percent of students citywide

Diane Ravitch, historian of New York City schools, wrote about the G&T admissions change to a single test score in 2008: “Any education researcher could have predicted this result, because children from advantaged homes are far likelier to know the vocabulary on a standardized test than children who lack the same advantages.” Yet other methods of admissions to G&T programs are equally problematic. Indeed, the Bloomberg/Klein shift to using a standardized test for access to G&T programs was in response to inequalities in G&T admissions that existed at the time, which used a variety of criteria, including teacher recommendations and private (and expensive) psychological valuations. A recent study found that nationally Black students with high standardized test scores are less likely to receive G&T services than White students with similar scores, and suggests that teacher discretion (and teachers’ racial background) explains some of this difference. Ultimately, what seems like a commonsense solution to diversify the G&T to SHS pipeline, by prepping and testing all children, is actually not going to have the desired effect of increased diversity in SHS, because G&T programs suffer from the same segregating forces as the SHS.

Attempting to expand and diversify G&T programs also does not address the core problem of separating students into ‘dual school systems’ operating at the curricular level within public school settings.7 Instead of public schools becoming the ‘great equalizer’ in society, through
G&T tracking, city schools are labeling some students as more likely to succeed than others, and that label is disproportionately being given to White and Asian students coming from families with advantaged backgrounds. Critics of G&T tracking bring attention to the academic and
social harms of segregation, including achievement and opportunity gaps and negative stereotypes.

Another proposal put forth to diversify G&T programs, and SHS, is to prep and test more students. However, during Chancellor Carranza’s testimony on the SHS admissions he reported that even as more Black and Latinx students were prepped for the test, and a higher number of
students took the test last year, the number of Black and Latinx students who qualified for SHS did not increase. This is because prepping and testing more students does not mean more students will pass the cutoff score. In fact the cut-off score needed for admissions to the SHS is a
moving target based on who else took the test and how they scored. The SHSAT is norm-referenced; it compares test-taking students to each other, not to some set of curricular standards, and because there are a discrete number of seats available, increasing the number of students who take the test merely drives acceptance rates down