How does the process work? Four-year-olds take a nationally normed standardized test (actually, two tests, the NNAT and the OLSAT, which are supposed to measure reasoning ability and general intellectual aptitude). No bubble sheets: It’s administered in person by an adult. Those above 90th percentile qualify for district programs. Those above 97th percentile qualify for citywide programs.
Those are the technical qualification thresholds. In practice, you need a 99 to qualify for a citywide school and usually something like a 95 to qualify for a districtwide program, though it depends on the district.
Just because students are intelligent enough to pass a test doesn’t mean they understand people who might be ethnically, racially or culturally different.
That’s what happened to Gordon in his freshman biology class when his lab partner blamed him for the AIDS virus. Or when he was told to “go back to Africa” because he disagreed with some of his peers on the merits of the Specialized High Schools Admission Test (SHSAT).
And both of us have repeatedly heard something along the lines of, “Black people don’t care about education.”
While these stories may seem shocking or anachronistic, they are not unique among Stuy’s black and Latino students.
Students from families living in neighborhoods within the South Bronx and central Brooklyn were least likely to attend the famed schools, in a similar pattern to last year, the data show.
An analysis of city Education Department data revealed just seven of roughly 19,875 students from Bronx District 7 landed seats in the elite public schools in 2018.
That’s just .035% of students in the South Bronx district — and the smallest percentage of any of the city’s 32 school districts.
Studies show that almost every student can improve their grades with private tutoring. But when only the rich can afford it — in New York the average cost of private tutoring is $64 an hour, though rates can easily approach and even exceed $100 — it’s no surprise their children are overrepresented in elite high schools and colleges, at the expense of everyone else.
In fact, in New York there is a dedicated tutoring industry just for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, the now-infamous admissions test that is the sole criteria for admission to elite — and wildly racially imbalanced — high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.
And for others, paid school consultants, tutors and prep courses, some starting as early as kindergarten, give students with means, or those with parents in the know, a leg up. That includes poor Asian families who spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars prepping for the exam.
The same can be said for gifted and talented admissions, where disparities are equally abysmal. Or SAT and ACT results. There is an entire economy set up around test prep for a reason.
We’ve conducted more than 70 interviews (and counting) with adult alumni of Stuyvesant High School who graduated between 1946 and 2013 for a book we’re working on called “The Peer Effect.” (We both graduated from Stuyvesant in the 1980s.) Many of the people we’ve interviewed grew up poor, and/or were black, Latino or Asian. Some of the graduates we interviewed from earlier years were from poor or working-class Jewish families. We also interviewed a lot of former students who were brought up in white, middle-class families.
I was the valedictorian of my eighth-grade class and earned a special honor for never missing a day of school, but that wasn’t enough to help me, or others like me, gain admission into schools like American Studies. Instead, a single specialty test was used to gauge my intelligence, work ethic and worthiness.
The mayor’s proposal to admit students based on a more equitable policy has been met with vehement opposition from people with false presumptions about students like me. Many assume that low-income students of color like me are just “too lazy” to prepare for the exam, and that kids who do better on the SHSAT prove they “deserve” to get in.
“We’re the only city in America that requires a single test for admission to a public school,” he said. “So I’m asking the question . . . ‘Is that OK?’ I’m asking the question, ‘Is that justice for our kids?’ ”
“You have brilliant black and Latino students . . . if they don’t do well on that test, given one day, for one time period, for one opportunity, if they do not do well they don’t get the opportunity,” said the chancellor, who derided the current system as “neither reliable or valid.”
We at the New York Urban League are taking these issues head-on by helping to educate parents and students about the SHSAT so more black and Latino students are aware of the exam. Exams are administered in the fall; check the New York City Department of Education website for test dates, and encourage students to jump on this opportunity.
As test prep for the SHSAT exam has become more widespread, diversity has plummeted. Schools like Stuyvesant have wound up in highly public cheating scandals. Without greater student-body diversity, schools like Stuyvesant may never be able to curb cheating because it becomes too commonplace; students will continue to do it until they get caught. Students who have taken test prep who may not otherwise meet the criteria for admissions to these elite schools may feel pressure to succeed at all costs.