ast week, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging systemic bias in New York City’s specialized high school admissions process. The complaint’s principal charge is that the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) discriminates against black and Latino students seeking admission.
Admission to New York’s eight specialized high schools depends on a student’s performance on the SHSAT. The NAACP LDF complaint argues that “thousands of academically talented African-American and Latino students who take the test are denied admission to the Specialized High Schools at rates far higher than those for other racial groups.” In sum, the NAACP LDF claims that because so few African-American and Latino students score well enough on the test to be admitted to the specialized high schools, the test is inherently unfair.
This reasoning can be too easily dismissed as circular and reductive. John McWhorter, in a recent Daily News op-ed, claimed low admission rates for black and Latino students has nothing to do with racism. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was even less diplomatic. “Life isn’t always fair,” Bloomberg told the Daily News when asked about the complaint. “We’re not here about equal results. We’re here about equal opportunity.”
As a parent with a student in one of the eight specialized high schools, I believe the admissions process is both biased and flawed. However, NAACP LDF’s focus on the test – and not the entire process – is misplaced.
According to a recent New York Times article about black students at Stuyvesant, the specialized high schools are far less diverse today than they were a decade ago. My daughter’s school, Brooklyn Tech, currently is the most diverse of the specialized high schools, with 10 percent of the 5,332 students identifying as black — but, as the article notes, in 1999-2000, 24 percent of Brooklyn Tech’s students were black. The decline in black and Latino enrollment at the specialized high schools likely corresponds to the increased prevalence of SHSAT prep courses, one of the biggest factors determining student performance on the SHSAT.
Taking an expensive one is almost mandatory for students hoping to do well on the test. The private test preparation industry effectively controls admissions to New York’s specialized high schools. Reliance on expensive, private test prep courses ensures that entry will be gained by only an elite few who have access to information about the best test prep courses, and the financial means to pay for them. My daughter currently attends Brooklyn Technical High School. I paid about $800 for her SHSAT prep course, a sum that would be cost-prohibitive for many New York City families. But having the means to afford such a course isn’t enough.
Information about SHSAT prep courses and tutors is not published by the DOE or shared with students by guidance counselors. This information tends to get shared through word-of-mouth within a family’s interpersonal networks. Families who are not “in the know” about SHSAT prep courses are disadvantaged over other applicants by this information gap, regardless of means.
The City of New York has offered free SHSAT prep courses to low-income students, but a few free prep courses can’t cover all the kids who are shut out under the current system. Moreover, no one seems to have assessed whether the free test prep courses offer similar results to those of the private prep courses. Free courses for underprivileged students also do not help students who do not qualify for the free courses but are unable to pay for an expensive prep course.
Prep courses do more than prepare students for the test — they help students understand and manage the admissions process. For example, students have to rank the specialized high schools in order of preference before they take the SHSAT. Some students who score well on the SHSAT fail to get placed