A chart in a civil rights complaint about the city's specialized high school admissions process shows the acceptance rates for students of different racial groups. (Click to enlarge.)

It seemed like a good strategy: To boost the tiny number of black and Hispanic students at the city’s most elite high schools, the city this year expanded access to programs meant to prepare eighth-graders for the schools’ admissions test.

But that approach is fundamentally broken, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which today filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test.

“More tutoring and more test prep is not the answer,” said Damon Hewitt, LDF’s director of education. “We need a real paradigm shift.”

The complaint calls for a new way of admitting students to the city’s eight specialized high schools. The schools have long screened students by ranking their performance on a one-time exam, a practice that was written into state law in 1972 for the three schools that were then open.

But that approach has yielded student bodies that do not reflect the city’s demographics — or even the demographics of the students who take the test. Last year, black and Hispanic students made up 45 percent of test-takers, but they represented only 14 percent of admitted students. At Stuyvesant High School, the most selective and least racially diverse, just 25 black and Hispanic students were offered seats.

Along with several community groups and legal groups, the Legal Defense Fund — which sprung from but is not actually part of the NAACP — is asking the federal Office of Civil Rights to push the city to advocate for changes to the admissions process. The office cannot mandate changes, but it can make the city’s federal school aid contingent on changes to the admissions process to make it more equitable. The office has 180 days to respond to the complaint.

The complaint suggests several alternatives to the current admissions process. First, it says the city should adopt a “multiple-measures” approach to assessing applicants, by looking at their grades, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, and life experiences. Although the process could seem onerous when 30,000 students take the high school exam each year, many other selective schools already assess students according to multiple measures, Hewitt said.

The city should also compel all of the specialized schools to participate in an expanded version of a program that has allowed black and Latino students who score just below each school’s cutoff to win admission by participating in a summer program, the complaint argues. Currently, the city’s most selective schools opt out of this program.

And the complaint argues that the city should also reserve some seats at each school for top students from across the city. In 2010, Stuyvesant High School’s ninth-grade included students from only 22 of the city’s 32 school districts, leaving large swaths of the city unrepresented. The final component hews closely to what John Garvey, a former CUNY administrator, proposed in a 2010 piece in the GothamSchools Community section.

“The woefully small percentages of black and Hispanic students at the city’s specialized high schools is not a new development, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something to change it,” Garvey wrote at the time. “Here’s my suggestion: The Department of Education should adopt a proportional admissions plan for the exam schools that would offer admission to the highest-scoring students from each of the neighborhoods of the city.”

City officials say they couldn’t do anything about the admissions process even if they wanted to.

“State law requires that admission to specialized high schools be based solely on an exam, and we want all of our students to have opportunities to prepare for the test no matter their zip code,” said Erin Hughes, a Department of Education spokeswoman, in a statement.

Hewitt contested that argument. Only Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School are named in the 1972 Hecht-Calendra Act. The other five specialized schools, which all opened under the Bloomberg administration, have been designated as specialized schools but do not have to remain that way, he said.

“The city could change its policy today,” he said. “There’s no reason why the city and the state and complainants and experts can’t come to the table and hammer out a workable, fair, just, nondiscriminatory policy. This could change as fast as there is political will.”

The change has some allies in Albany. Last year, Bronx Assemblyman Karim Camara was one of several legislators to initiate bills that would alter the Hecht-Calendra Act. Those bills didn’t make it into law last year, but Hewitt said he hoped lawmakers would try again this year when the legislative session begins in January.

Because the specialized schools contain only a tiny fraction of the seats across the city’s high schools, changing their admissions processes would affect very few students directly. But Hewitt said large numbers of students would benefit nonetheless.

“The message that this longstanding discriminatory policy sends is a very horrible one — it’s that even if you work harder than the next person and even if your grades are better than the next person, you still might not get the opportunity that that person gets,” he said.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s complaint is below.