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Changing Admissions to the NYC Specialized High Schools

Yesterday, Bill de Blasio, the current Mayor of New York City outlined how he would "fix" our specialized schools. The schools he was referring to were the "big three" of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech and then five additional schools - The High School for Math Science and Engineering at CCNY, The High School for American Studies at Lehman, Brooklyn Latin, The Queens Arts and Science High School at York College, and Staten Island Tech.

All use a single SAT style test, the SHSAT, for admission. The Big Three are locked into that system unless there are changes made by the state legislature. The Mayor can make changes to the admissions criteria of the other five on his own.

The problem, as stated by Chalkbeat writers Alex Zimmerman and Monica Disare is that:

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

I normally don't write about things like this but given my history at and with Stuyvesant I thought I should.

Before getting started, my biases - I believe in public schools, not charters, I also believe that a system should have gifted programs and magnet schools and also a mix of large comprehensive schools and smaller niche ones. Additionally, while I do believe in gifted programs I'm not sure at what point it makes sense to start offering them. When we were looking at elementary schools for our own kids we opted for a neighborhood public school rather than applying to the district gifted program as we felt it offered a better overall education. On the other hand, had our kids not made Stuyvesant, I'm not sure what we would have done. Part of that was due to the fact that the Bloomberg administration destroyed just about all the large comprehensive schools so, other than that large test schools and LaGuardia, good luck finding a school that was strong in the humanities, sciences and offered a robust music program.

The overall picture

For reference, here are unofficial cutoff scores for the specialized schools from 2018 along with the NY State data on free and reduced lunch for 2017. Note that there's overlap between the schools. I separated out SI Tech since geography probably affects it's numbers more than the other schools and I separated the big three from the remaining four because I think the three are all substantially larger. The free and reduced lunch percent is important because I believe an entire school qualifies for Title I funding if the number's over 40 so while these schools are not populated entirely by low income students, all but HSAS has a substantial number and there's a chance, some say a good one that at best BdB's plans will merely shuffle which low income kids get in rather than actually solving the root problem.

School Lowest Score admitted High Score Pct free or reduced lunch
Stuyvesant 559 698 46
Bronx Science 518 637 45
Brooklyn Tech 493 668 62
HSMSE 516 616 46
HSAS 516 633 25
Brooklyn Latin 482 555 61
Queens Sci 538 542 64
SI Tech 519 660 40

The plan

Part 1 - test prep

There's idea here is that test prep is rampant for SHSAT and that the test can be gamed. This may or may not be true but if it is then it's safe to assume that a lot of low income kids are doing test prep either by prioritizing test prep programs in family budgets, working off of an SHSAT test prep book or by attending a middle school that has some form of prep.

There has long been a program on the books called "The Discovery Program" which has a free city run test prep component and also a summer component. The summer component is for low income students who score within "a few points" of the school in question's cutoff score. At the end of the summer, I believe the students retest and in general make the school in question.

This program is a good thing and should be reinstated but I don't know if it will result in the changes that BdB is looking for. More likely Stuy will get its discovery kids from Science and Science from Tech. As there are already many low income students at all of the schools there's no indication that this would increase the number of under represented groups which is BdB's goal.

It's also worth noting that there's a sizable chunk of Brooklyn Tech students that don't perform particularly well on regents exams. Everyone knows I'm not a fan of standardized tests and I don't believe that students that score a "few points" lower on the SHSAT are any less qualified to be in a specialized school but at the lowest performing end of these schools, one has to ask how specialized is it really?

Part 2 - use state test scores instead of the SHSAT

This could be a very good thing with one major caveat.

Twenty one middle schools produce over half the students that ultimately are accepted to the specialized schools. For the rest, there are a few reasons

  • Many students don't take the SHSAT.
  • There have been stories of schools steering kids away from the

specialized schools.

  • There's no culture in those schools of striving for specialized

school acceptance or attendance.

  • The academic programs at those schools don't prepare students for

the SHSAT exam for reasons that we're not going to delve into here.

All students already take the NY State middle school Math and English exams. Yes, it would further raise the stakes for those exams but it would ensure that the specialized schools are on the map for everyone,

The big question here is "do the current state exams cover enough material in enough depth to select and differentiate for gifted programs." I don't know the answer to this question. If they don't then using state test scores will be a disaster. If they do, then they could be a suitable alternative.

Part 3 - admissions from every middle school

This is the third part of BdB's proposal - guarantee admissions to the top 10% of students at every middle school.

This could be a real disaster either for the students or for the schools. There's no question that students coming out of different middle schools are at different levels of preparedness for the specialized schools. Arguably the most obvious difference is that some middle schools offer algebra and others don't.

For better or worse, the specialized school's curricula, classes, and overall programs have evolved hand in hand with the exam. If you all of a sudden end up placing a large number of students with a different and arguable weaker academic profile into these schools one of two things will happen. Either the students will struggle immensely or the school will have to lower its standards. There's no two ways about it.

If you set standards for academic preparedness for the specialized schools either by making a hard cutoff on an exam score be it state or SHSAT and then spread those acceptances across all the schools maybe it could work. If not, you're setting up students with high grades at schools with weak programs up for failure.

Another problem is what to do with non-public school students - private schools, charters which take public money but act as private schools, parochial, and home school students. Where do they fall in to this equation?

Is one measure bad?

So there you have my thoughts on BdB's specific proposals but I also want to address his contention that a single measure is bad and makes the comparison to colleges where they by and large use multiple measures. This is a ridiculous comparison. Yes, colleges look at multiple measures but after watching decades of Stuy students go off to college, it's clear to me that the process is by no means fair or consistent. Elite schools can easily game their acceptances and they still can have 100% of their applicants with off the charts SAT scores.

A single test might not be ideal but it can only be gamed by test prep and test prep can be as cheap as buying a test prep book.

As to other measures that come up from time to time - interviews, portfolios, essays - who does that help? The low income kid or the well to do one?

If you're going to add another measure for admission it has to be something that can't be gamed or politically influenced,


Should the city address the fact that there are groups that are under represented at the specialized schools? Certainly, or rather, the city should address deficiencies in opportunities that are like the causes of this under representation.

Should the city be doing things differently? Also yes. Here are some thoughts on what the city can and should be doing.

Do the experiments in the non-big three.

There are five specialized schools that aren't covered by state legislation. Why not run your experiments there. You've got the big three as a control group and what's more if you look at the "acceptance score windows" in the table above, you'll see that there's enough overlap that you can probably get some real data out of these experiments.

Why not change the admissions criteria for one or two of them and see how it goes before jumping in whole hog. Figure out if anything works first.

Check existing data

We've got SHSAT results and State Test score results along with student grades for years. Why not study correlations between them. Rather than making a specious claim about middle school grades in NYC Public Schools vs state tests vs the SHSAT, run the numbers. Take a look at student high school performance based on these predictions. This shouldn't be guess work and city should have the data to do better.

Fix the middle schools

This one is more pie in the sky because no politician really wants to take this one but you've got to look at what's going on in the middle schools and why.

I tweeted this the other day:

The truth is that if you did this, the high performing school would probably continue to be high performing and the low performing one would still struggle. There's only so much a teacher can do. A school with a disadvantaged population needs the resources to succeed - lower class sizes for a start. Add wraparound services, extensive after school and weekend opportunities - make the schools a part of the community and maybe we can get somewhere.

Another question relating to our schools in general is to look at attrition rates to private schools - how many students in our under represented groups are being siphoned off to private schools on scholarship. I don't have any data for this. It could be an insignificant amount or it could go a long way in explaining the downturn in the numbers over the decades.

So where are we

There are a lot of changes I'd love to see in our public schools and I do believe BdB's heart is in the right place. I'm concerned that some of the solutions that he and other politicians come up with will hurt the current low income students at the specialized schools and unintentionally advantage the well to do while not helping those that at least BdB may honestly want to help.

He should enact Discovery and research the State Tests but proceed with caution. The test schools have always been and continue to be a gateway for poor and immigrant students and any changes that are proposed should be weighed carefully and tested before taking steps that could real harm when good is intended.

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