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Putting the test to the test: NYC’s Specialized High School exam does not aim to exclude minorities

A state appellate court reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit that claims New York City’s specialized high school admissions process illegally (and intentionally) disadvantages Blacks and Hispanics in their admissions — so the allegation will now be tested at trial. From where we sit, the assertion, at least with respect to the test that determines who gets into Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and the other “crown jewel” city public high schools, identifies the wrong culprit in a complex problem.

There’s no question that the current system, which uses the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the sole gateway to determine who gets to study at the eight selective schools, is one of the factors that produces student populations at those campuses that are much more white and Asian, and much less Black and Latino, than the student population as a whole.

Because of that, and because for sound educational reasons almost no other schools in America at any level use just one test to determine who gets in, other factors should be added. More diversity can be attained, and academic excellence maintained, through an admissions system that considers multiple measures of achievement.

But admitting that a single-test-based admissions system is ripe for reform is a far cry from perniciously claiming that it is intentionally discriminatory. Still, to prevail, what matters is not the motive, but the outcome.

The plaintiffs assert that the state and city “intentionally adopted” and have “for decades have intentionally retained — with no pedagogical basis — testing-based sorting that they know excludes students of color from equal educational opportunities.”

History shows otherwise. The very same system that is now crassly labeled a tool of white (and Asian) supremacy in the 1970s and 80s admitted Black and Hispanic students in much larger numbers. In the early 1980s, for example, Brooklyn Tech was 55% Black and Hispanic. 

What changed? Many things. 

An influx of mostly working- and middle-class Asian-Americans, many of whom placed great emphasis on acing the test, greatly boosted the number of such students vying for, and qualifying for, entry. 

Simultaneously, pricey test-preparation programs costing thousands have refined their offerings, targeting people who can pay — and low-cost prep programs, though available, haven’t kept up.

Meanwhile, elite city private schools, aided by programs like Prep for Prep, admit hundreds of Black and Latino students every year, giving them a choice outside the public school system.

And over the decades, far too many of the city’s public middle schools clearly failed to adequately prepare Black and Hispanic kids to complete as effectively as they had before.

As the Manhattan appellate decision — which, remember, sided with plaintiffs — points out, their complaint “is not a model of clarity or concision” and that “some passages read more like an academic thesis than a pleading.” That said, as the opinion also notes, plaintiffs need not prove that the discrimination is intentional to win their case; they must only show that the persistence of the SHSAT-based admissions has had a discriminatory impact. 

Either way, someone must remind the trial court that a test-only admissions model worked for thousands of lower-income people of color decades ago. There’s no plot to lock out Blacks and Latinos, just a system that’s skewed over time and can be fixed.


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