New York City’s specialized high schools are a model of opportunity. They have stellar academic records, and, being public, they are free to attend. Their alumni tend to go on to elite colleges and prestigious careers. Together, the schools serve close to 18,000 students each year, and at eight of the nine schools, admission is determined based on how middle schoolers do on a standardized test.
That test—called the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, or SHSAT—has been the sole admissions criterion for eight of the nine specialized high schools for a couple of decades (and even earlier for some, as mandated by a 1971 law). (The ninth, LaGuardia, is a visual and performing arts school that grants admission based on auditions or portfolio reviews, but not the test.) And earlier this month, New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, put forward a radical proposal: Get rid of the test.
The problem, as he and many others see it, is one of equity: There are very few black and Latino students in the specialized schools. The three highest-status schools—Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech—have black and Latino student populations of 4, 9, and 13 percent, respectively, far below the 70 percent in public schools citywide. What would replace the SHSAT? A system that would admit the top 7 percent of students at every public middle school in the city, which by the mayor’s reckoning would make the collective student body at the specialized high schools roughly 45 percent black and Latino.
Some aren’t pleased with the idea. Their view is that it would kill off a straightforward assessment of merit that applies across schools—the test is an objective measure, they say, and can’t be gamed the way interviews or grades can be, which can reward kids who are richer and/or white.
More specifically, de Blasio’s proposal has upset many Asian parents in particular and a great number of (though certainly not all) alumni and current students. Asian parents’ opposition to scrapping the test probably has something to do with the fact that, as data provided to us by the city’s Department of Education shows, 30 percent of Asian applicants in 2018 received offers to a specialized school, accounting for more than half of all offers. (And Asians are the minority group with the highest poverty rate in the city.) And there are plenty of elite public high schools across the country, but none are test-only, and none have the reputation nationally or internationally that New York’s specialized high schools do; many of the opponents of getting rid of the test believe—probably not incorrectly—that these schools’ reputation is in part a function of the formidable test.
The disagreement over admission to these elite schools is perhaps best interpreted as a consequence of a system that has over a million students, and not enough—as well as not widely distributed enough—resources for the brightest ones. What sets up the conflict in the first place is that there aren’t enough great schools and there are too few seats at the best schools—and students (and their parents) correctly sense that getting into a specialized school can make all the difference in life.
In the United States, if a child’s parents are poor, he or she is generally likely to grow up to be poor, or a little less so. But, as we’ve found in our research among Stuyvesant graduates, New York’s specialized schools obliterate that correlation. For a book we’re working on called The Peer Effect, we’ve done more than 70 interviews (and counting) with adult alumni who graduated from Stuyvesant between 1946 and 2013. (Part of our interest in the school stems from the fact that we both graduated from it in the ’80s.) Many of the people we’ve interviewed grew up poor, and/or were black, Latino, or Asian. Some of the graduates we interviewed from earlier years were from poor or working-class Jewish families. We also interviewed a lot of former students who were brought up in white, middle-class families.
Nearly all of these kids went to college, often selective ones, and most went on to do well professionally. The poorer students became middle or upper-middle class, and the middle-class students often did better than their parents. And they were happy—most (though not all) felt that Stuyvesant had had a big effect on their lives. For instance, Elizabeth Reid Yee, a white 1985 graduate who grew up poor in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, fully credits Stuyvesant with keeping her from a life of poverty. We heard many stories like this. In short, these specialized schools are transformative, and parents and kids know it.