Bills to change the admissions criteria for the specialized high schools were defeated in the last state legislative session and won’t come up again until January when the next one starts. But that hasn’t stopped advocates on both sides of the issue from pushing their agendas, especially since election season is approaching.
The issue is especially hot in Queens, which sends more students (1,919) than any other borough to these high schools — Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, Brooklyn Latin School, the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College and Staten Island Tech — which currently require that admission is based on a single entrance exam, as mandated by the Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971. Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for the Arts is the only specialized high school that does not require that students take the Specialized High School Admissions Test, but rather admits them through auditions.
Mayor de Blasio supports the bills, which seek to expand the admission criteria to also include grade point averages, attendance records and state test scores. If passed, the law would go into effect on July 1 and expire five years later. The bills’ main motivation is to increase enrollment among African American and Hispanic students, who comprise only a small percent of specialized high school students. Presently, about 70 percent of students enrolled at these schools are Asian or Asian American.
The United Federation of Teachers agrees and has promised to bring the issue up again. The UFT website states: “The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the single, high stakes determination for entry for eight of the nine New York City specialized high schools has not been validated by researchers and has resulted in diminished access for high achieving black and Latino students.”
Meanwhile, the parent associations of several specialized high schools released statements opposing the change.
The Bronx Science Parents’ Association wrote, “We stand for an admissions process that is a pure meritocracy, with one standard that is transparent and incorruptible. The suggested changes to the admissions process do nothing to address the root cause of inequity in elementary and middle school education. Further, the proposed new admissions criteria are deeply flawed. Disparities in academic outcomes start very early on.”
David Lee, an education activist, said that Coalitionedu, which hosted a forum on the issue at the Flushing Library on June 22, is focusing on the primary race between state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and former City Comptoller John Liu for the 11th District seat. Much to the surprise of the Asian-American community, Liu, a Bronx Science alum, supports multiple admission criteria, while Avella dropped his co-sponsorship of the Senate bill. Lee said many parents gasp when he informs them of the Senate candidates’ respective views.
“We don’t think enough constituents understand the issues,” Lee said. “It’s a matter of changing admission standards from merit to something other than merit and we don’t think that’s fair.”
Lee said the Sept. 9 primary race is crucial because the 11th District coincides with School District 26, which contains many “feeder” middle schools and some of the borough’s most overcrowded high schools. Cardozo and Francis Lewis high schools run on double or triple sessions and have trailers to accommodate the overflow.
However, the dramatic shortage of over 7,550 high school seats impacts the entire borough. Lee said that changing the admissions criteria in ways that would reduce the number of Queens students who leave to attend specialized high schools would increase pressure on its already overcrowded public schools, where people are already tripping over each other to get into honors and accelerated programs at the public schools, as well as parochial schools.
In addition to improving K-8 education throughout the city to increase access to the specialized high schools for students of all backgrounds, Lee advocates for increasing access to the DREAM program, which provides tutoring and test preparation for economically disadvantaged sixth- to eighth-graders who attain a set score on the fifth-grade state tests and have at least a 90 percent attendance record, by raising the income limit and lowering the required test scores.
“We want to promote diversity, but maintain merit,” Lee said.
He added that the racial disparity may be due to the fact that students from certain ethnic groups are more likely to choose parochial, private or charter schools, many of which also have high graduation and college acceptance rates, over the specialized high schools, while the Asian-American community focuses on the latter.
“We are not trying to take anything away from anyone, but specialized high school students do not want anything taken away from them,” Lee said.
Specialized high school students often contend with long commutes in addition to large workloads and extracurricular activities.
Due to an editing error, this article originally said Assemblyman Ron Kim had cosponsored the bill. He had not. And the number of Queens students in the specialized schools was initially misstated. It is 1,919. We regret the errors.