Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Specialized High Schools: A Cover For NYC’s Failing Education System?

By Templechukwu AnyasiPublished May 16, 2019

     I leave the station with my ticket in hand, and find my way to the exam hall. Students are lined up to enter the school and the anxiety is obvious in their eyes. This test will change the path of our lives. The stress surrounding standardized admissions tests is an experience familiar to generations of American students.1 However, for me and 28,000 other students, the struggle to win access to eight elite institutions isn’t for the Ivy League.2 Instead, it began at 13 as we fought for the right to a good high school.

     The stress of the SAT is fresh in the minds of many college students, as well as the recent scandals involving bribes3 and debates over the ethics of affirmative action.4 However each year, for 28,000 kids the SAT takes on different forms: the SHSAT. The SHSAT, also known as the Specialized High Admissions Test, is an exam taken by NYC students to gain access to one of eight NYC public high schools. In recent years, the schools have come under attack for their strict test-only admission process. Opponents argue the disproportionately low number of black and Hispanic students are indicative of a flawed test.5 As a result, debate has ensued over the proper method of providing fair access to some of the city’s best free education.

     The hype surrounding the issue of diversity in specialized high schools is well-deserved. I can personally attest to the shock I experienced entering a school which was 16% black or Hispanic in a city where nearly 70% of all public students7 were black or Hispanic.[6] However, the contest over eight schools in a city of over 1.1 million students8 and over 400 high schools never sat right with me. Regardless of the diversity of these few schools, there would always be students unable to attend these appraised schools. This is the underlying problem with specialized high schools: they serve as a sanctum from the truth of NYC’s school. Outside this small world of high school elitism, the Engish proficiency rate of NYC’s schools is 45.2% and the math proficiency is only 44.5%.9 New York City is facing a crisis on the masses by attempting to diversify the few.

     I do not blame the students attending these institutions. In my experience, they have been worked hard to be granted entrance into this educational bubble. However, once we leave this bubble we should recognize it for what it was. We must hold ourselves accountable. If someone were to base our values on the institutions we have set in place, what would they deduce?

     We do not value equal education.

     NYC is the most segregated school system in the country.10 This issue is institutional in nature considering the divisive history of America, however we allow it to bleed into our public systems.11 There is no reason why a city which distributes free train passes to hundreds of thousands of middle and high schoolers should restrict access based on neighborhood. I can attest to the fact that New Yorkers implicitly know neighborhoods reflect wealth, immigrant status, race, and education. As a 13-year-old touring schools, I was often told not to apply to a high-achieving school because they officially prioritize nearby residents of often wealthier backgrounds.12 These types of policies destroy the free movement needed for students to break past the scope of their neighborhood. It allows us to live in bubbles in one of the world’s most diverse cities.13

     If NYC wants to treat education like a right, it should stop making 13-year-olds apply for high schools as if these tests are choosing the brightest of us. Once you enter the elitist bubble, it often pops once you realize that many students, often of Asian background, spend thousands of dollars to prep for these exams.14 Suddenly, the lack of diversity begins to make sense. NYC should question why we punish children for not having parents who pushed their 13-year-old to study non-stop. Because regardless of your preferred parenting skills, a public institution should allow you to excel past the constraints of your household. Lastly, if NYC truly believes in the public right to education, we should not separate our 13-year-olds into an inherently unequal system and mask it as “specialized”. So, I implore NYC to fix its specialized high school diversity problem in the short-run, but also realize that those children without the privilege (through money, family commitment, etc.) must continue on trying to make it in a broken system.

Works Cited

  1.     A (Mostly) Brief History Of The SAT And ACT Tests. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  2.     “2014 - 2014 Specialized High School Handbook.” pg. 5.
  4.     Simpson, Eric. "Affirmative Action in SAT Hurts Education Standards, Minorities." The Daily Evergreen. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  5.     Gould, Jessica, and Wnyc. "Latest Specialized High School Acceptance Rates Still Don't Reflect NYC's Diversity." Gothamist. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  6.     "Specialized High Schools Stay Stubbornly Segregated, Continue to Admit Few Black and Hispanic Students." Chalkbeat. March 19, 2019. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  7.     "Back To School For 1.1 Million Students In New York City." CBS New York. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  8.     "How One Manhattan District Has Preserved Its Own Set of Elite High Schools." Chalkbeat. June 08, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  9.     "State Education Department Releases Spring 2018 Grades 3-8 Ela & Math Assessment Results." New York State Education Department. September 26, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  10.     Toure, Madina, and Madina Toure. "NYC Has the Most Segregated Schools in the Country. How Do We Fix That?" Observer. June 15, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  11.     Editors, "Jim Crow Laws." February 28, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  12.     "How One Manhattan District Has Preserved Its Own Set of Elite High Schools." Chalkbeat. June 08, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  13.     McGinniss, Paul. "Cultural Diversity in New York City." GAC. October 08, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  14.     Zerba, Amy, and Gabrielle Guz. "The Test That Changed Their Lives." The New York Times. September 04, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019.