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Failing The Stuyvesant Test

In 1971, the New York State Legislature passed the Hecht-Calandra bill, requiring that rank-ordered results from a single test determine admission to the city’s elite high schools: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. According to New York University professor Floyd Hammack, writing in the American Journal of Education, support for the bill was closely tied to racially-charged controversies over community control and was intended to protect these elite institutions through a mandated exam. The results have been devastating.

Today, black and Latino students attend Stuyvesant and its sister schools at levels far below those of other racial groups.   In 2010-11, the most recent year with published State Report Card data, out of a total enrollment of 3,288 students Stuyvesant High School had only 40 black students (1 percent) and 94 Latino students (3 percent, none with limited English proficiency). This means the school had only about 10 black and 24 Latino students out of over 800 students per grade level. The problem starts with the rank-order, test-only admissions policy. While over 12,000 black and Latino students took the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test last year, only 5 percent of black test takers and 6.7 percent of Latino test-takers were offered admission to any specialized high school.

New York City’s use of a single, rank-ordered test to determine admission is unique in American education. According to Chester Finn, who was appointed as assistant U.S. Secretary of Education by the first President Bush, of hundreds of competitive high schools across the country, only New York City employs a system where a single test means everything. I know of no American college or university, no matter how selective, that uses such a system. Even in New York, many other selective high schools rely on multiple measures that require students to demonstrate their qualifications across dimensions — not just a single, coachable test.

In bringing its federal complaint against the Specialized High Schools admissions policy, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (to which I am an unpaid advisor) is challenging both the effect of the test in diminishing opportunities for bright black and Latino youth and shining a light on the arbitrary nature of the admissions process. How peculiar, to have the state legislature determine these procedures! Normally, such technical matters are left to educators versed in psychometrics and professional judgment. Here, a 40 year-old law trumps everything we know and otherwise practice about academic merit.

That SHSAT scores are highly sensitive to test prep is beyond dispute. Rigid rank ordering creates hair’s-breadth distinctions without substance. The test has never been validated to determine its consistency with actual high school performance so the city Department of Education cannot even demonstrate a relationship between admitted students’ test results and those of others who might have been more successful meeting elite high schools’ demands. Discounting the use of middle school grades, portfolios of student work, and (after substantiated widespread cheating at Stuyvesant) character diminishes merit to a narrow gauge of tutored test-taking proficiency on a given day in an adolescent’s life.

Who would rely on such a system in 2012 if it wasn’t for the momentum of a law passed in 1971? Use of the SHSAT as the sole criterion for admission to New York’s elite high schools perpetuates a political moment long since past. It is educationally, legally, and socially indefensible. It creates an artificial barrier to thorough decision-making, promotes racial isolation, and flies in the face of every other system used in the United States to assess academic merit.

Like any such barrier to opportunity, sole reliance on the SHSAT should fall. A judicious set of admissions criteria can assure both access and excellence. The matter is directly in the hands of the state legislature and, now, the U.S. Department of Education.  The main stumbling block to reform, however, is Mayor Bloomberg’s “let them eat cake” declaration that the current system is somehow fair, though his argument runs contrary to other merit selection processes used by his administration.

If the mayor ends his opposition, the legislature could do its work free of the political pressures that gave rise to the original statutory imposition of Hecht-Calandra. The complainants and their supporters in the current action, including leading Asian-American advocacy organizations, are not asking for anything more than a rational system of multiple measures that will assess applicants for specialized high school placement that includes, but is not limited to, the SHSAT.

In the end, this is a call for a political solution to a politically created problem. New York is debased by its continued adherence to an irrational system that perpetuates racial bias.

David C. Bloomfield, an attorney, is professor of Educational Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is an unpaid adviser to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed a complaint about the Specialized High Schools Admission Test with the U.S. Dept. of Education Office of Civil Rights.

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