By Prem Calvin Prashad
Though there is only one specialized high school in the borough, Queens’ students attend Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and other specialized high schools in massive numbers.
These eight schools offer entrance through a controversial state-mandated competitive examination. Nearly 30,000 pupils take the Specialized High School Admission Test every fall. These dedicated pupils commute to class each morning and the schools have produced many of Queens’ political, business and social luminaries.
Yet, in the decades since the Hecht-Calandra Act mandated Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant to offer admission by examination, a troubling trend has emerged. African-American and Hispanic students, representing nearly half of the city’s pupils, failed to secure more than 10 percent of seats across these schools.
Adding five specialized high schools in the previous decade did not slow this trend. In the 2012-13 school year, only 19 of Stuyvesant’s 967 incoming freshmen were African-American.
The roots of this disparity differ, though most opponents allege that the prevalence of paid test prep has enabled Asian-American and white students to gain a competitive edge on their peers. Others note a lack of awareness for African-American and Hispanic households about the test and educational options that their children have when choosing high schools.
This disparity, as well as dwindling rates of African-American and Hispanic students at the schools, caused a coalition led by the NAACP to file a lawsuit, challenging the examination as the sole basis for admission.
In addition, proponents of this lawsuit note that state law does not mandate that the five newest high schools, including Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, offer admission through the SHSAT.
These advocates believe that a more holistic admissions process, including interviews, volunteer experience and recommendations would be able to better identify gifted students that have issues with standardized testing.
Historical evidence shows, however, that when the University of California, Berkley made such a change from their examination model in the 1920s, Jewish student enrollment dropped dramatically.
Conversely, many alumni worry about the implications that such a change would have for Asian-American students, many of whom also hail from low-income households but do well on the examination. The dominance of Jewish students on the examination had led Berkley to make this prejudicial “correction.”
State law requires that the original three of the eight schools be required by to offer admission by examination, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Farina took a quiet, but significant step toward reforming the test.
A private company administers the SHSAT through a contract with the DOE. In a Request for Proposal issued to choose a new test provider, the RFP indicated that any proposal submitted must include an essay section. The proposal, due Dec. 4, would award a contract to provide the test for at least six years, with the first test starting in fall 2016. Potentially, the entity awarded this contract would shape the test for the near future.
A written section could introduce subjectivity to the process, but that has already been a point of contention for reading comprehension multiple-choice questions. Proponents of such a change argue that students that excel in writing and communication skills would also have a foundation to succeed at these schools.
Indeed, written communication is an important career skill and either creative or analytical writing can enable the student to demonstrate English language proficiency, which is predicative of success at a Specialized Science High School.
Barring action on the state level, scrapping the SHSAT entirely is unlikely. Here in Queens, some test prep providers have taken steps to make their services more widely available.
Khan’s Tutorial, a large, locally owned test prep center with 10 locations, including Jackson Heights, Astoria and Richmond Hill, has announced the Dr. Mansur Khan SHSAT Opportunity Scholarship, which will award two students from underserved communities at each of the provider’s ten locations.
About 185 students from Khan’s Tutorial managed to gain admission to specialized schools, but only 13 were African-American, Hispanic or West Indian, the communities that will be served by the scholarship.
To learn more about the scholarship, visit khanstutorial.com.