By Alex Robinson

A bill which would change test criteria for the city’s specialized high school entrance exams has been smothered by racially charged debate, state Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing) said.

The legislation, introduced by Assemblyman Karim Camara (D-Brooklyn), would expand criteria set in 1972 to include grade point averages of applicants, school attendance records, school admission test scores and state test scores.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test is given to more than 20,000 eighth- and ninth-graders across the city every year to determine if they will get one of the 5,000 coveted spots in eight of the city’s nine specialized high schools.

Eight of these schools, which include Queens High School for Sciences at York College, use the multiple-choice entrance exam as their sole method of selecting students. The exception is Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan, where students’ applications are reviewed based on a competitive audition in addition to academic records.

Kim signed on to the bill last week, saying the single test leaves behind some talented students.

“This bill is to make sure we upgrade the standards that were set in 1972 to make it better [and] to push our families so that students can be more well-rounded,” Kim told reporters in his Flushing office last week.

The method through which specialized high schools test their applicants has been criticized over the years because it does not select a diverse student body.

Although the test is solely based on top scores and does not take race, neighborhood or background into account, a far larger percentage of Asian and white students have successfully gained entrance to the elite schools than minorities.

Even though 70 percent of the city’s students are black and Hispanic, only 5 percent of the students in specialized schools are black and 7 percent are Hispanic, according to the city Department of Education. More than half of the students in specialized high schools are Asian and 26 percent are white.

After the bill was introduced, Kim’s office received a flood of complaints from Asian constituents, worried their children have been targeted by the proposed legislation as it would create a broader competitive field.

Although the discussion surrounding the bill has become racially divisive, Kim said the legislation was never meant to be about race.

“There’s a lot of confusion in the debate,” Kim said. “It’s unfortunate that on both sides of the issue people are so eager to address the race issue.”

Kim said the bill has no chance of passing the state Legislature this year because of the way it has been presented to the public.

“People are so caught up about race and not looking at the problem,” he said. “It’s unfortunate we can’t move forward, that we can’t put politics aside and actually look at the issue.”

State Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), who heads the Independent Democratic Conference and is one of the upper chamber’s de facto leaders, said in a statement that the bill needs to be debated more before it is voted on.

“It is clear that we need to vastly expand the resources for test preparation in disadvantaged communities — something I am committed to delivering,” Klein said. “If we increase awareness of the admissions test, provide more resources for test preparation in targeted areas and finally start administering this test in more diverse communities, I think we can change the enrollment of our top high schools dramatically.”

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s (D-Manhattan) office did not return requests for comment.

Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at arobinson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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