By Mark Hallum
To close the diversity gap in specialized high schools throughout the city, state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) is calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to commit $10 million in next year’s state budget to test prep programs.
A proposal from Mayor Bill de Blasio to phase out the use of the Specialized High School Admissions Test was announced in early June to diversify the student population at the nine elite high schools across the city, where minorities make up only 9 percent of the student population.
“The end goal in including funding for the Dream Program is to both save the test and increase diversity from lower-performing school districts,” Avella said at an Aug. 23 news conference. “By allocating funds to test preparation, students will be better prepared for their future because they will have received the proper educational support earlier in their life. That is why I am calling on Gov. Cuomo to allocate $10 million to the New York City Department of Education’s Dream Program.”
De Blasio’s plan to abolish the SHSAT would require approval from the state Legislature, but did not gain traction with many lawmakers from Queens who said a better route would be more services that prepare students for the highly competitive exam.
Cuomo has since said he would not support any legislation that gets rid of the test.
“The idea we put forward is, of course, phase one with the Discovery Program to increase right away the number of kids who are disadvantaged who get in even with the current test system. But the real goal, and the thing we need legislation for would be to change the entire system,” de Blasio said when announcing the proposal, which would force the Legislature to come to a quick decision with just weeks left in the session that ended in July. “Junk the test. Get rid of it. Go with a system based on grades and based on performance on something much more universal, which are the state exams that all kids take — every single kid takes— in math and in English. Combine those results to get a real composite of how a child has done,”
The mayor claimed that phasing out the test over a three-year period would lift black and Latino acceptance to specialized high schools to 45 percent compared to the current 9 percent. He added that 62 percent of offers would go to female students as opposed to the current 44 percent.
Although opposition to the proposal has been widespread and fierce, lawmakers and advocates are still making their opinions public.
“Until non-test honors classes can be widely restored in the public school system, Dream will be an essential resource to help under-represented minorities prepare and do well on the SHSAT. Spent properly these funds will develop the abilities of promising students from under-represented areas so they can apply on an even playing field for a seat at these important rigorous STEM schools. Fixing the pipeline to the Specialized Schools is an effective and equitable solution that all stakeholders can agree with,” said David Lee, Education Committee chairman of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York.
Avella said he and fellow former Independent Democratic Conference member, state Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), had allocated $2 million to the effort of increasing test prep for under served middle schools.
“Test preparation and enrichment actually foster learning and improve educational outcomes to the benefit of all students engaging in it, including those who ultimately are not successful on the SHSAT. Test prep essentially is just studying. Instead of being scorned by some it must be encouraged and facilitated financially where needed,” Jon Roberts, a member of CoalitionEDU, said.
Disapproval of abolishing the exam has proven to be bipartisan with not only Avella being against the proposal. His progressive opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary, former City Comptroller John Liu, also thinks the test should remain. David Bressler, a Republican running against state Assemblyman Edward Braunstein (D-Bayside), is not far off from his opponent either in his preference to keep the exam.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall