NYC must improve education for black students

In 2019, the central office of the city’s Ministry of Education called me. They wanted to make sure I was informed about the Specialized High School admissions process because my child had done very well on the state tests that year. They told me about upcoming information sessions, including one in my neighborhood.

The session I attended explained the Specialized High School application process and also provided students with free practice tests and materials for the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Those who do well on the test can attend one of nine top specialty schools — some of the best high schools in the country — such as Bronx Science or Stuyvesant.

Out of curiosity, I asked three of the other families also present how they had heard about the session. Two black families told me they got a call from the DOE. A white family told me they heard about the information session from a flyer at the library. My child is black.

Black children are underrepresented in these schools compared to their population in the public school system. The DOE may have identified one of the reasons: a lack of information on the SHSAT. So they make sure to contact parents of black children who are qualified candidates early.

And when I say early, I mean early. In 2019 when the DOE called me, my son was in 5th grade.

It is now 2022 and my son is in 8th grade and applying to public high schools in New York. I’ve read many articles claiming how unfair the SHSAT is, especially for black kids like mine, but if you consider clarity and transparency as a form of fairness, the SHSAT was the most fairness of the whole process.

The NYCDOE identified a lack of black and Latino representation within the city’s elite high schools.
Matthew McDermott

Here is the process for admission to specialized high school: Register to take the test. Report to your testing location at the designated time with a #2 pencil. Take the exam. Wait for the results. The end.

As for the application process for non-specialized schools, well, if someone had deliberately tried to make the process more infuriating, I don’t know if they could. It has been a waste of incomplete, conflicting and changing information from the DOE. I have spoken to many families who have already gone through the admissions process and they have told me that this year was the worst ever.

This Kafkaesque high school admissions process is the result of the DOE’s clumsy attempts to make the high school admissions process “more fair.”

Regardless of where you stand in the debate about selecting students for high school placement, I think we can all agree that withholding information until the last minute and then creating an unnecessarily complex selection system is not the path to equity.

Throughout the process SHSAT remained unchanged. It was clear and consistent and easy to follow. The SHSAT is not the part of high school admissions that is unfair to my child. What is unfair is to imply that admission standards must be lowered because black children are unable to achieve the same levels of academic achievement as white or Asian children.

Publicly announcing that the only way to increase Black and Latino enrollment in competitive high schools is to lower admissions standards is a denial of the DOE’s failure to prepare Black children to meet those standards. It’s also a slap in the face for hard-working black and Latino kids.

Chinese-American parents and students demonstrate against New York City Mayor DeBlasio's plans to scrap SHSAT.
While in office, Mayor de Blasio proposed scrapping SHSAT in an attempt to integrate the school system because most of the top public high schools are staffed primarily by Asian and white students.
Getty Images

Furthermore, it communicates to white and Asian students that black and Latino children are not their intellectual equals and to teachers that black and Latino children should not be held to the same academic standards as white and Asian students.

High academic expectations are not the problem. On the contrary, in a report published by TNTP, the former organization of our current First Vice-Chancellor Dan Weisberg, one of the main barriers preventing black children from receiving a quality education is low academic expectations.

“It doesn’t cost a penny more to have higher expectations for kids, to actually believe that kids — low-income kids, kids of color, English language learners — can be successful,” said Weisberg in a 2018 interview.

Dan Weisberg's headshot.
First Vice-Chancellor Dan Weisberg said in 2018 that it doesn’t cost money to have higher expectations for all students.
Daniel Weisberg/Linkedin

Black children can be as successful academically as white or Asian children. Black kids don’t need to lower the high school admissions bar. They need the K-8 education to get past the bar.

In 2019, the year the DOE called me, 14,199 black 5th graders took the state math test; 1,654 scored 4 or higher (4.5 is the best score). If the DOE did indeed call 1,654 black families to ensure high-achieving black children are told about the test, that is to be commended.

But raising awareness of top scorers won’t solve demographic disparities at special high schools, because also consider this: In 2019, 6,751 black 5th graders scored a 1. That is, nearly half of Black 5th-grade students in New York City public schools scored the lowest possible — there’s no zero on this test.

No amount of SHSAT prep can fix this. It’s not about test-taking skills – it’s about kids not learning basic academic skills in our public schools.
Meanwhile, 3,491 black students scored a 2. Not as bad as a 1, but still below grade level (a score of 3 means “meets standards.”)

This test is not a graded test where children are compared to each other. In a functioning education system, 100% of children would score 3 or 4. These results mean that nearly three-quarters of 5th grade black students in New York City public schools cannot do basic math. in 5th grade.

Bronx Science High School in the Bronx.
Bronx High School of Science is one of the best high schools in the country.
JC Rice

It’s a tragedy, and designing a more complicated high school admissions process won’t change the fact that our schools are failing to prepare many students for high school-level academic work.

I’ve heard people say that the problem with the SHSAT is that the results don’t reflect the demographics of our school system. But the truth is, they reflect the demographics of our school system in that few black children receive a quality education in our K-8 schools. The DOE wants to claim the fault comes from the test, but the test results are just the symptom.

So, instead of actually educating our children, the DOE creates complicated Rube Goldberg admissions machines to try to engineer racial diversity.

It's the first day of school when students in NYC can resume learning at school, and students at PS 25 (The Bilingual School-811 #149 St., Bronx) are returning with masks.
Competitive high schools aren’t a problem, writes Powell, but the DOE should better prepare all students to be able to compete.
Matthew McDermott

Families are busy trying to identify “good” schools for our children to apply to, and then we are busy figuring out how to apply. Parents don’t have the energy to ask questions like, why aren’t all DOE schools good schools?

Competitive high school admissions aren’t the problem. A K-8 school system that only prepares a portion of kids to compete is the problem. If the DOE fixes this, it won’t have to worry about “fixing” high school admissions.

Laura Powell is a New York public school parent.

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