Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Specialized High Schools, Segregated Student Body

By Aaron Gottesfeld, Stephannie Chen, and Emily BramhallPublished January 1, 2017

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New York City’s test based specialized system creates a sharp ethnic divide in schools. The city must take action to increase diversity and expand the availability of test prep, or else change the Specialized High School admission system.
In the final fall of middle school, New York City students sit for the Specialized High School Admittance Test, or SHSAT. This test is the only thing standing between them and entry to one of the eight highly coveted specialized high schools in New York City. Though each differ in specialized field, all boast high levels of AP exam scores, SAT scores, graduation rates, college readiness, and admissions rates. As a result, the admissions process is extremely competitive every year, with the most recent admissions rate being a selective 23%.
The admissions test is open to all eighth graders residing in New York City, yet there are clear discrepancies among who are admitted to these specialized schools. Only 6% of black students tested and 7% of Hispanic test-takers were admitted last year, compared to 35% of Asian students and 31% of white students. As a result, the specialized high schools retain a population that is overwhelmingly heterogeneous. This school year, only 11% of students enrolled in these eight high schools were black or Latino, compared to 68% citywide.
Looking at such demographics, one can conclude that fewer black and Latino students take the SHSAT. This is not true. Black students make up 23% of test-takers second to Asian students, who make up 26%. Hispanics make up 20%, while white students were the smallest demographic 15%. If black and Hispanic students make up a large percentage of test-takers, why is this statistic not reflected in the rate of admissions?
Many people point to the necessity of test preparation. The test based admissions process requires training that can be expensive or time consuming, and as a result is unavailable to many. In New York City, median household incomes greatly differ among races, with White families earning a median of about $100K a year, while Black families earn a median of $33.1K and Hispanic families earn a median of $31.8K. Tutors, and study books are often financial obstacles that families with minority status cannot afford, with some preparatory programs ranging from $135 to $425 per hour. Michael Holmes, a science teacher at the specialized High School of American Studies, can attest to this discrepancy. “The SHSAT shows if you have the economic means to prepare for the test, the basis of merit goes out the window. Being able to afford tutors and test prep puts you at an advantage,” he said.
The single variable approach to admissions puts certain groups at a disadvantage, but this does not have to be the case. One solution can be found in the Discovery Program, which allows students that narrowly missed admittance to visit the school over the summer for SHSAT tutoring and to sample the school. If all goes according to plan, these students will retake the SHSAT to transfer into the school for their sophomore year. Alternatively, the application process could allow students to report ways in which they’ve interacted with their community and showcase their personal drives and curiosities that are so vital to a thriving student.
The city can also further invest in public tutoring services, offering a cheaper, if not free, alternative for those without access to the expensive private test prep business. Even now, the NYC Department of Education is partnering with tutoring services such as DREAM to expand the accessibility of the test. An online platform for these services would also ease the high logistical demands, while providing more widespread coverage. This can work in conjunction with a teacher-referral program, in which teachers nominate students they believe to have the potential to do well in the specialized high schools. The combination of these approaches will better target and empower the students these high schools hope to attract.
Diverse classrooms are a cornerstone of modern education. Students from varying backgrounds enrich classroom discussions with the different experiences, perspectives, and cultural contexts that they bring with them. Furthermore, research suggests that socially diverse groups are more innovative than homogeneous groups. In a diverse group, individuals recognize that there will likely be greater disagreement and thus they are willing to explore alternative perspectives and work harder to reach a consensus. Diverse environments more yield creative thoughts, resulting in better decision making and problem solving. Educational research from the University of Michigan came to similar conclusions: “Students who interact with diverse students in classrooms...will be more motivated and better able to participate in a heterogeneous and complex society.” New York City should strive to increase diversity in its classrooms, as it is unequivocally important to the education system.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology serves as a beacon for how the system could be amended for the better. A STEM specialized magnet school located in Alexandria, Virginia, TJHSST employs a more comprehensive admissions process. After passing an initial multiple choice test including a verbal and mathematics section, semifinalists complete a student information sheet, consisting of questions to learn about the applicant’s prior experiences, goals, and interests, as well as an essay designed to evaluate an applicant’s problem solving abilities and sense of ethics. Semifinalists are required to submit two teacher recommendations which further complete the image of the applicant, decreasing the weight placed on test results and test preparation.
New York City must reform its system to ensure that the Specialized High Schools better reflect the City’s diversity within the population of talented students. The city must supply more resources to these underrepresented students to ensure that all high-performing students have an equal opportunity to learn and thrive in these schools regardless of their background or zip code. Test prep should not be a barrier to any high-potential or high-achieving students in placing into these specialized high schools.