Keep the Specialized High Schools Special

By Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz

Let’s be clear: there is something wrong when only 13% of the students in New York City’s specialized high schools are Latino or African American. However, I do not believe that the problem lies with the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which eight specialized high schools use as their only criteria for admission. The underrepresentation of some minority groups in these schools is indicative of a larger set of challenges facing this city’s educational system that begin in kindergarten or before. Those who advocate for a more complex admission process do a disservice to the students they want to help, and to the premise of objectivity upon which these specialized schools were founded.

Of the hundreds of high schools in New York City, only eight base their admissions decisions solely on the SHSAT. Though no test is perfect, the SHSAT seeks to be entirely objective. It is meant to identify New York City’s best and brightest young minds so that they can learn alongside their peers. Political influence, athletic prowess, and family legacies play no role in these schools’ decision-making process.

The myth that these specialized high schools exist exclusively for the privileged elite is just that: a myth. According to the Department of Education’s statistics, over half the students currently enrolled in these eight schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. A significant percentage are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and less than a quarter of the student body is white.

Those advocating for additional criteria to determine admissions want to use standards that are prone to manipulation and subjectivity such as grades or attendance. Yet an “A” may not reflect the same level of academic achievement in one school as it does in another. And while a good attendance record should be the goal of every student, qualified applicants may miss days of school for any number of justifiable reasons. Merely showing up should not be a factor in determining whether a student is qualified to be in a specialized high school.

To be sure, there are some aspects of this application process that can be improved. One critique of the process, which I believe is reasonable, is that not all students have equal access to preparatory classes and tutoring for the SHSAT. This can and should be changed: I believe that every student should have free test preparatory classes available to them. In addition, the SHSAT is currently an opt-in test, meaning that students must register to take the test. This means that students across New York City, including many in Latino and African American communities, do not take the test or even know that it exists. Instead, I believe that the SHSAT should be an opt-out test: students would be automatically registered for it unless he or she chooses to opt out. It should be incumbent upon the Department of Education to inform every family of the specialized schools, the SHSAT, and the free tutoring opportunities available to them.

The eight specialized schools that use the SHSAT to determine admission are among the best in the state, and have earned national reputations for excellence. My own alma mater, Bronx Science, counts eight Nobel Prize winners among its alumni. These effective educational institutions should be cherished and protected. Don’t get me wrong: the non-representative demographics of these specialized schools are beyond troubling. But adjusting the application process to include factors beyond the SHSAT would simply introduce bias and subjectivity to an objective, and fair, process. Free preparatory classes and an opt-out, rather than opt-in, test format would be big steps forward. Still, these measures are only part of the solution. Together, we must continue to work on fixing our educational system so that every child from day one has an equal opportunity for a top-notch education.

(This letter was published in The Riverdale Press on July 31, 2014)