New York: the school admissions test dividing a city

Lennox Thomas was one of the top students in his middle school in Brooklyn. But despite his high grades, in 2015 and again in 2016 he failed the test to enter one of the city’s nine elite public high schools, which for many low income children in New York have traditionally acted as a gateway to prosperity. “I felt defeated,” says Mr Thomas, “and lost confidence in my academic abilities. I was robbed of receiving the best free education that the city has to offer.” 

He was just 13. Shortly afterwards he joined Teens Take Charge, a student-led organisation campaigning for an end to the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) which, the group argues, contributes to racial segregation in the city’s schools. It is an argument that is receiving increased attention: the number of black and Hispanic students attending these schools has plummeted since the 1990s. 

It has now also become a political battle in the city pitting Bill de Blasio, the mayor and one-time Democrat presidential hopeful for 2020, against wealthy philanthropists determined to maintain the system.

“I realised that it’s not just me: it’s systemic. There are larger forces at play,” says Mr Thomas, who is black. “Parents who have money can afford to give their kids the best tutoring and as a result their children are going to do better on these standardised tests because they have been preparing for years.” 

The specialised high school test in maths and English serves as the sole gatekeeper to eight, out of the nine, of New York City’s tuition-free elite public high schools. Around 30,000 students take the test each year, and the 5,000 who score high enough are granted access to the best free education available in New York, one that often opens doors to top colleges.

Lennox Thomas, photographed on the campus of his High School in conjunction with Brooklyn College on October 4th, 2019. Thomas is a member of Teens Take Charge, a student-led organization that aims to end segregation in New York schools. Monique Jaques for The Financial Times

Lennox Thomas, a member of Teens Take Charge, on the campus of his high school in Brooklyn © Monique Jaques

Of the most recent intake — for the 2019/20 academic year — only one in 10 of the students offered a place was black or Hispanic, despite comprising nearly 70 per cent of the public school student population in the city. At Stuyvesant High School, ranked the second best in New York state, only seven out of 895 places were offered to black students. Around 50 per cent of offers to the nine specialised schools were made to Asian students, with white pupils the next largest group.

New York schools are among the most racially segregated in America, according to The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The situation is blamed on a lack of integration in general across the city, where the poorest neighbourhoods and middle schools tend to have higher numbers of black and Hispanic students.

Advocates of scrapping the test say the New York case is symptomatic of a broader struggle across the US over how to reduce racial segregation and discrimination in schools more than six decades after the Supreme Court ruled to end the separation of students by race in the landmark Brown v Board of Education case in 1954. The test has taken on fresh significance amid rising anti-immigration rhetoric in Donald Trump’s America. 

Vivian Sanchez, who moved to the US from the Dominican Republic in 1993, says that her daughter, Valentina, also a top student at a middle school in Queens, a largely immigrant borough of New York, suffered the same fate as Mr Thomas nearly a decade ago. “The test is not designed for us. It’s not designed for black or Latino people . . . it’s designed to exclude us,” she says.

Chart showing De Blasio's plan to make specialised schools more diverse

Mr de Blasio appears to agree. Last year, the New York City mayor unveiled a plan to scrap the test, triggering a bruising political fight with wealthy philanthropists over how to improve the opportunities for the city’s poorest kids.

The frustration expressed by Mr Thomas and Ms Sanchez is felt across the city. More than 75 per cent of black and Hispanic voters are in favour of changing the admissions system, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in April. In the same survey, more than half of white voters agreed. 

The de Blasio plan would see the test replaced with a scheme to admit the top 7 per cent of students — based on their course grades and state test scores — across all public schools. The SHSAT test takes neither factor into account. If adopted, the overall number of black and Hispanic students at specialised schools would rise from 10 per cent a year to about 45 per cent, according to New York’s independent budget office.

Describing the current situation as a “monumental injustice” on Chalkbeat, an education-focused website, Mr de Blasio last year said: “A single, high-stakes exam is unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses.”

Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nickie sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nettie explains to her daughter the meaning of the high court's ruling in the Brown Vs. Board of Education case that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.

Over six decades have passed since the Supreme Court ruled to end the separation of students by race in Brown v Board of Education © Getty

Opponents — including some in the black community — argue that scrapping the test would dilute the academic quality of the specialised schools. A group of wealthy New Yorkers, including the billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder and former Citigroup chairman Richard Parsons, launched the Education Equity campaign to counter the de Blasio plans. Mr Lauder, who in 1989 ran against Rudy Giuliani in the Republican party’s New York mayoral primary race and is close to members of the Trump administration, wants to keep the test. He argues that if more public money was spent on offering free SHSAT tutoring the schools would be more inclusive.

“Our campaign is not about defeating the mayor’s plan or preserving the status quo,” Mr Lauder said in a statement to the Financial Times. “It’s about making sure New York’s education system is the envy of the entire country.” New York state currently ranks 13th in US News & World Report’s 2019 list of best high schools. 

The campaign group ran advertising opposing the de Blasio proposal in the months before the bill was blocked in the state senate in June. 

“I don’t think you can truly change things by keeping the same test in place,” Mr de Blasio told local media on September 26 when he admitted that his “plan didn’t work”. “We are going to start over, listening to everyone, and listen for something that will get us progress. 

“The one thing I can’t live with is the status quo,” he added. 

In this March 25, 2014 photo, students leave Stuyvesant High School, one of the nine specialized public high schools in New York City. New York state has the most segregated public schools in the nation, according to a report released Wednesday by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Students at Stuyvesant High School, one of nine elite public schools in New York City © AP

The issue is playing into the presidential race with Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — both 2020 hopefuls — calling for more federal spending to boost diversity. They have also called for a ban on charter schools backed by billionaire donors. 

Adam Stevens, a teacher of American history at Brooklyn Tech — one of the specialised schools — believes eliminating the exam would have a similar impact to the civil rights era busing initiative that boosted access for both black and Hispanic children to quality education. But it also triggered a violent backlash in some parts of the country. 

“Busing was a way to give black and Hispanic kids white resources, and it happened very fast. That’s why there was such a strong opposition to it,” says Mr Stevens. “This debate is similar: eliminating the test would swiftly desegregate the schools, and quickly give black and Latino students access to resources.”

For generations, schools like Stuyvesant High, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech provided many low-income families in New York with an opportunity to have a free world-class education. And greater social mobility. 

In 1971 a state law introduced a mandatory admission test for the specialised schools — public institutions for students identified as academically gifted — to measure their English and maths skills. The goal was to give all New Yorkers, regardless of income, a fair shot at getting into one of these elite schools. 

The system has worked incredibly well for thousands of New Yorkers. The alumni include several Nobel Prize winners in science, high-ranking public officials such as Eric Holder, the former US attorney-general, prominent artists such as rapper Talib Kweli and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Yet it has worked less well in recent yearsfor black and Hispanic students, according to a 2015 New York University study. “There is little question the elite high schools in NYC lack the gender, racial and ethnic diversity of the district as a whole,” the study found.

Chart on diversity in New York City's elite high schools

In the 1980s and 1990s the numbers were much higher. But a deterioration in middle schools — blamed partly on public funding cuts — means that those with a higher concentration of black and Hispanic students tend to have less-qualified teachers, a higher turnover of staff and fewer resources than schools with mostly white students, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA titled New York State’s Extreme School Segregation. That, combined with the rapid expansion in expensive test preparation, has disadvantaged black and Hispanic students, the American Civil Liberties Union said in May. 

Runnie Exuma, the most recent president of Brooklyn Tech’s Black Student Union, says that the exam — which she passed — “doesn’t take into account other things, like the structural inequities in the city. The test just reproduces those inequities.”

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 20: (from left to right) Ronald S. Lauder who won the Directorate award

Ronald Lauder, left, and Richard Parsons, founders of the Education Equity campaign © Getty

Education Equity, the non-profit organisation backed with about $2.5m from Messrs Lauder and Parsons, argues that the idea of eliminating the exam ignores bigger problems, most notably the disparity in the quality of public middle and elementary schools. As well as campaigning, the group is also funding tutoring programmes for lower income students taking the SHSAT. 

“[Scrapping the test would be a] political band-aid [that] would not fix a single one of the [city’s] 480 broken middle schools,” says Kirsten John Foy — a former aide to Al Sharpton, one of the city’s most prominent black leaders — who heads Education Equity. “We talk to middle school parents every day who don’t even know specialised high schools are an option for their kids. That’s because the mayor and his team make no effort to publicise the entrance exam.”

The campaign group argues that diversity can be boosted through other means, including increasing the number of specialised schools and the availability of free test preparation. “With this [latest] investment in free test prep, we will lift kids up to achieve their God-given potential,” Mr Lauder said. “My hope is that the city will build on the foundation we’re laying today by offering universal, publicly-funded test prep going forward.”

Democratic presidential candidate New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during the National Education Association Strong Public Schools Presidential Forum Friday, July 5, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio wants to scrap the city’s specialised high school admissions test © AP

The city’s education department stresses that it has already increased investment by offering free prep classes and that under Michael Bloomberg, Mr de Blasio’s predecessor as mayor, new specialised schools were added. However, the department concedes that despite those efforts, diversity in the school system has not improved.

Asian-American associations in New York are also opposed to scrapping the test, saying it would discriminate against low income families in their communities. “We shouldn’t enact policies that disparage one group or another,” says David Lee, education chair of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance for Greater New York. “Asians are a minority just like any other group and should not be marginalised, just like any other group.”

The authors of the 2015 NYU report suggest that the de Blasio plan would increase diversity at specialised schools. But they concede that some students could be left ill-prepared because of their experience at middle school.

Frantzy Luzincourt, an undergraduate at City College of New York, who has served on the education department’s school diversity advisory group, says such arguments are flawed.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 9: Chinese-American parents and students demonstrate against New York City mayor DeBlasio's plans to remove the SHSAT, a standardized test, for admission to the city's elite public high schools, on September 9, 2018, in New York City. New York's board of education wants to make attempts to integrate the school system, and most of the best public high schools are mainly Asian and white, not reflecting the city's population. For various cultural and economic reasons, these two groups generally obtain higher scores on the admissions test. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Demonstrators show their support for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT © Corbis/Getty

“If you’re saying that the test is completely meritocratic, you’re saying that white and Asian students are inherently smarter,” says Mr Luzincourt. “Essentially these people are saying that either black and Latino students don’t work hard, or they’re not smart enough. This is the same logic behind eugenics. It’s obviously not true.”

Sean Corcoran, economics professor and co-author of the NYU report, says that a middle ground might be to keep the test but include other criteria in the admissions process. “The solution comes down to what we value and what we decide the purpose of these schools is,” he says.

David Kirkland, an expert on race and education and executive director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, says the problem needs to be solved by elected officials rather than super-rich philanthropists.

“[The Education Equity campaign] co-opts the concept of equity, but reinforces the status quo,” says Mr Kirkland. “[It is working] to block any type of meaningful reform that research and advocates have lobbied for.”

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