BY SAM RAPPAPORT
Last year, nearly 17,000 middle school students from across the city competed for 100 open spots at Queens High School for the Sciences at York College. The school is one of eight elite public high schools in the city that rely exclusively on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) in its admissions process.
On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared his intention to scrap the test in favor of a broader set of evaluation methods. Since the admissions process for the specialized high schools is determined by state law, de Blasio can only offer support for legislators in Albany fighting to amend the requirements. Currently, a bill—Assembly Bill 10427A—that would broaden the specialized high schools’ criteria for admission is currently being discussed in the New York Assembly’s Education Committee.
While the mayor has asserted that reformation of the admission process is necessary for an equitable system of evaluation, many Queens legislators have voiced concern with the mayor’s intentions.
Assemblyman Edward Braunstein (D-Bayside) said, “A change of this magnitude to our education system should never be rushed through at the end of session with no public hearing and a lack of input from the stakeholders who would be greatly affected by this proposal.”
Some elected officials saw the idea of giving less weight to the SHSAT as a weakening of the specialized high school admissions process.
Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) said, “A test that focuses on such empirically unbiased subjects like math, logic and reading comprehension cannot be blamed for failing at diversity.”
That the test is biased against the city’s black and Latino students is exactly what the mayor has said.
“The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed—it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence,” the mayor wrote in an op-ed for Chalkbeat.org on Monday.
The mayor pointed to the fact that of the 5,000 admissions offers from elite high schools this year, only 172 of them went to black students and 298 to Latino students. Two out of every three eighth-graders in city public schools are black or Latino.
“Our best colleges don’t select students this way,” de Blasio said. “Our top-level graduate schools don’t…. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.”
The mayor asserted that the reliance on a single, high-stakes exam is unfair to students whose families cannot afford test-preparation tutors and courses. Starting in 2019, the mayor said, he aims to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cutoff. He acknowledged that a more permanent reform would have to go through the state Assembly and Senate. The mayor is setting his hopes on a bill that would replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process and give more weight to class rank and results on statewide tests that all students take throughout the year. The reforms, the mayor said, would make the city’s elite high schools more reflective of the city at large.
State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) took issue with the idea that the test disadvantages black and Latino students in particular, and she said that eliminating the test would not increase diversity at the specialized high schools.
“To assume African American and Latino students cannot pass the test is insulting to everyone and educationally unsound. To suggest low-income students do not do well on the exam is just not true. Many Asian American students come from families who live in poverty,” Stavisky said.
Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman (D-Springfield Gardens), who is a member of the Assembly’s Education Committee, said that she felt conflicted about the Assembly bill which, if passed, would reform the specialized high school admissions process. She stated that the bill had been hastily put together, and that while she understood the necessity of increasing black and Latino enrollment at elite schools, she also voiced concern with eliminating a test that has proved beneficial for many Asian American students.
“Right now, as the bill stands, I can’t support it,” Hyndman said on Tuesday, a day before the Education Committee was set to discuss the bill.
“I represent a community that has a lot of South Asians, the fastest-growing populations in these high schools. How am I supposed to eliminate this test when it has been an access point for these communities?”
On Wednesday morning, Hyndman had slightly changed her tone. She went from opposing the bill to being “conflicted” about it. After speaking with adversaries of the possible reform, Hyndman said, she believed that much of the opposition was rooted in racism.
“There was a lot of racism on these calls,” Hyndman said. “There was a lot of, ‘Those people should just study harder.’”
Regardless, Hyndman said, the bill has almost no chance of making it into law with the Republican majority in the state Senate. Hyndman said on Wednesday that she doublted the bill would even make it to the Assembly floor.