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Queens Chronicle

OPINION Keep the SHSAT and build more elite high schools

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Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2018 10:30 am

The bill to fix the lack of diversity in New York City’s specialized high schools has been put on hold. When it comes up in the next session, the Legislature should reject it. It is a horrible bill that seeks to remedy a socioeconomic problem — but at the expense of destroying an iconic institution that has long been considered the pride of New York City.

The bill would abolish the Standardized High School Admissions Test and replace it with a new system that would admit students from among “the top 25 percent of eighth-graders citywide.” City officials say this new system is guaranteed to draw students from each of 600 middle schools and the new student body will closely reflect the ethnic breakdown of the general population.

What is wrong with this system? It is guaranteed to produce lower performance standards of students and simultaneously deny admission of large numbers of the “best and brightest” who would normally have scored in the top percentiles on the SHSAT. Seats to deserving students would be pulled and be given to less deserving students who would be ill-prepared for the rigor of the specialized high schools.

This is precisely what makes Mayor de Blasio’s reform plan a zero-sum solution — and it doesn’t have to be this way. Just build more specialized high schools. Don’t dumb down the educational system even as America strives to be a knowledge-based society and even as presidents of top universities complain regularly of not being able to recruit from a pool of high school graduates prepared for the rigor of advanced learning. Watering down educational standards at any level is never a solution to any problem.

I propose the following solution:

1. Expand capacity for specialized high schools from the current 16,000 (only eight schools) by an additional 48,000. Build 32 new ones, one in each of 32 school districts, with enrollment at 1,500 each; applicants should reside in the district. So much for equal distribution and availability of a first-class high school in each district citywide.

2. Admission: Currently students with performance in the first-, second- and third-highest percentile scores on the SHSAT go to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech. Students scoring within a band of the next highest percentile would be admitted to the specialized high school in their district.

3. The current top eight specialized high schools would remain untouched. As reforms take hold in each of 600 middle schools in the city and as the culture undergoes changes for the better, it is fully expected that the underrepresented “majorities” (blacks and Hispanics) will begin to reach proportional representation in the top eight. It is not true that Asians and whites are inherently smarter than blacks and Hispanics. Habits of culture and discipline are not inherited traits of intelligence.

4. In each of the proposed 32 new specialized high schools, blacks and Hispanics would be expected to show proportionate representation, if not at the beginning, then within three years as reforms take hold. After all, the students are drawn from within majority black and Hispanic districts.

De Blasio has proposed a zero-sum solution to what is essentially a socioeconomic and cultural problem. He seeks to solve this problem with a sledgehammer within three years. Unfortunately, socioeconomic problems require better strategy and patience.

I am now retired from the Department of Education, but I taught at Bushwick, New Utrecht, John Adams and Queens Vocational high schools over the last 20 years — and in every one of them I saw so many black and Hispanic students who were bright and disciplined, paid attention and did homework. I would always ask: Did they take the SHSAT to get into a specialized high school? Invariably the answer was that they were not given the opportunity to take the test. These students literally languished among others who had not yet experienced a level of self-realization and love of reading and learning. Such bored students often became disruptive, resulting in lost time. And, who suffered the most? Those very bright black and Hispanic students who should have been in one of the specialized high schools, studying and competing among peers in a more stimulating, conducive environment.

It is OK for de Blasio and his policy makers to bemoan the lack of diversity in specialized high schools; it is not OK to propose solutions without first understanding what led to the problem. “Mainstreaming” was an educational strategy pushed to its extreme and became standard — albeit disastrous — educational policy for more than 30-years. Result: It drastically lowered performance standards at all levels citywide.

I’ll end this essay by writing this note. Dear Mayor de Blasio: Please expand specialized high schools’ capacity to accommodate 48,000 more very able and bright students. All of them barely miss the cutoff point on the SHSAT. Throw them a lifeline, rescue them from what invariably is a system of low-performing high schools. Give them a seat in a first-class high school so that they may have an opportunity to develop their potential to the fullest.

Mike Persaud is a retired New York City high school teacher from Richmond Hill.

Welcome to the discussion.

1 comment:

  • manturtle posted at 5:13 am on Sat, Aug 11, 2018.

    manturtle Posts: 2

    "... not given the opportunity to take the test."
    How were the black and Hispanic students denied the opportunity? Wouldn't that be the real problem that needs fixing, Mike Persaud?

    There is a huge diversity problem in the SHSAT attendance. For the 2018 test the Asian students sat for the exam at a rate of 52 per thousand, where Latinos attended at a 15 per thousand rate. For black students it was 19 per thousand, whites students 32 per thousand and for the 'students of other backgrounds' the rate was 65 per thousand.

    With the release of the 2013 study that shows the SHSAT is an accurate predictor of student performance in the specialized schools the test attendance numbers become even more important. Latino, black and white students all attended the 2018 test at lower rates than Asians and students of other backgrounds.

    So Mike Persaud how were students systematically denied the opportunity to take the SHSAT?

    No proposal for change, including building more specialized schools, should be made until the test attendance problem is included in the debate.