IDC proposes solution for specialized high school diversity crisis

By Prem Calvin Prashad

After yet another year of foundering enrollment numbers for black and Hispanic students at the city’s specialized high schools, the Independent Democratic Conference in Albany is taking a crack at reforming the admission process for those schools.

The IDC, which consists of centrist Democrats in the state Senate, including Tony Avella (D-Bayside), put forward a proposal March 9 that outlines three issues that the conference believes are at the root of the problems black and Hispanic students face when accessing the city’s best public education resources.

To date, test-reform proponents have criticized the current admission standards—which currently hinge on a single, high stakes test and no other factors. While supporters of the current policy have extolled the test’s blindness to grades, as well as societal factors, such as poverty, skeptics have questioned whether the test can present the best-rounded candidates for admission.

An NYU-Steinhardt study into alternative proposals to consider community service, grades and other factors, found that such “multiple measures” wouldn’t sufficiently address the disparity and would overall favor white and Hispanic students, while not substantially affecting black enrollment and decreasing enrollment for Asian American students.

Complicating this assessment is the fact that Asian-American students form a supermajority across all the specialized schools, with white students a distant second. Despite having some of the highest rates of household poverty in the city, these students have managed to beat predicted trends. Though some critics have attributed this to access to paid and free test preparation, the Steinhardt study found that Asian Americans were also more likely to take the test and more likely to accept the offers of admission than their peers.

There is an undeniable link between preparation and admission, as evidenced by Queens-based Khan’s Tutorial, a chain of test prep centers that claims to be linked to 10 percent of students at Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant, according to CEO and President Ivan Khan. The chain has managed to place 330 students this year and in 2014 launched a scholarship program, reserving two seats at each of their 10 locations for 18 months of free test prep for high achieving African American and Hispanic students. Of the 16 African-American and Hispanic students from Khan’s Tutorial offered admission this year, eight were scholarship recipients. The organization said it hopes to demonstrate that “under-represented minorities could do just as well as other groups as long as the resources are made available to them.”

To address the issue of awareness, the IDC proposes designating $350,000 to fund outreach coordinators and related efforts at middle schools with underrepresented populations. It noted that citywide, white and Asian students comprise just 27.6 percent of students, but combined, account for 47.3 percent of students taking the test.

Issue two identifies the “preparation problem,” in that some students set out to prepare for the test as early as the sixth grade, but many lack the resources to do so. For the proposed cost of $1 million, the IDC suggests expansion of free test prep access in 32 Community School Districts. Issue three also relates to the pipeline, noting the lack of Gifted and Talented Programs in districts with low household income. Specifically, in Queens, of the 31 Gifted and Talented Programs, the IDC report said, 40 percent are located in the districts covering Flushing, Bayside and Fresh Meadows. Schools with these programs are considered “feeder schools,” typically sending the most pupils to specialized high schools. The conference estimates the cost of establishing more such programs would be $2.55 million.

The IDC appears to have taken the Steinhardt study into careful consideration when crafting their policy solutions. As a specialized high school alum from southeast Queens, I can attest that the combination of involved parents, outreach by guidance counselors, a gifted and talented program, and the DOE’s free test prep were all instrumental in my admission. It remains to be seen however, if the legislature will find the consensus to fund any of these proposals at a meaningful and sustained level.