Gotham’s Exam-School Problem

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a federal civil-rights complaint against the New York City Department of Education last week on grounds that the special test used for admission to eight of the city’s selective public high schools is discriminatory—because it results in too few African American and Hispanic youngsters gaining entry into those schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admission Test (SHSAT) is a two-hour multiple-choice exam. Under a forty-year-old state law, the scores that students earn on it—and only those scores—determine who gets into, and rejected by, these eight schools, including the three old and famous ones: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech.

The SHSAT is also a very big deal in New York City, as some 28,000 (mostly) eighth and ninth graders take it every year, competing for about 6,000 spaces in the schools themselves. Because attending any of these schools is a pretty certain path to graduation and admission into a decent (or even stellar) university, all at public expense, the competition is fierce. There are cram schools and tutors. And one’s test score determines everything.

That’s rare in the world of selective-admission public high schools, as Jessica Hockett and I learned in our recent examination of some 165 such schools around the country. Nearly all the others consider multiple elements of their applicants’ readiness to do well in the generally high-powered academic environments that such schools offer. Along with test results, they weigh middle school grades, teacher recommendations, essays, even interviews, much like the admissions offices of selective colleges.

That’s the case with dozens of other “screened” high schools in New York, too, which are selective—often highly so—but don’t rely exclusively on a single test score to decide who gets in. (We profile one such school, Townsend Harris High School, in the book.)

The NAACP’s civil-rights complaint is based on what’s known nowadays as “disparate-impact analysis,” which is to say that if a seemingly objective and even-handed procedure yields a result that is not equitably distributed by race (or gender, handicapping condition, whatever), it is presumed to be discriminatory on grounds forbidden under sundry civil-rights laws and constitutional provisions.

Because black and Hispanic youngsters are indeed “underrepresented” in the entering classes of the SHSAT high schools when compared with the youth demographics of New York City—and there’s no denying that they are, just as white and especially Asian youngsters are “overrepresented”—the NAACP asserts that the test must be discriminatory and therefore the federal Office for Civil Rights should make the city stop using it.

Such a holding would, in effect, suspend a four-decades-old state law and there is little doubt that litigation would follow—even as the U.S. Supreme Court is once again weighing whether race can be used as a factor in university admissions.

My co-author agrees with the NAACP that New York should stop using the SHSAT as the exclusive basis for high school admission. I agree with her that a more “holistic” evaluation of applicants for admission to those eight schools is educationally desirable. I also believe that New York City could and should be doing a vastly better job of identifying high-potential kids at an early age and affording them educational opportunities that would better equip them to compete successfully for entry into schools like Stuyvesant. But I don’t have much patience for disparate-impact analysis or for the effort to enlist the feds to force New York to stop doing something that the state legislature required it to do and that the city’s mayor, who runs the schools, believes is fair.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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