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Queens Chronicle

BACK TO SCHOOL & FALL GUIDE 2019 SHSAT: Who has the answers?

Elite high school test still a third rail

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Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2019 10:30 am

A year ago, Mayor de Blasio published an op ed piece on Chalkbeat.com, the website which covers the city school system, and the debris is still raining down from the explosion it set off.

“The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed — it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence,” the mayor wrote.

“If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.”

Those turned out to be fighting words to at least one community in the city whose clout and stature are on the upswing, Asian Americans.

Nothing in recent memory has galvanized the Asian community in New York City quite like the proposal by de Blasio and city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza to eliminate the one-test system in order to bring more black and Hispanic students into the top ranks of the city’s high school structure.

Next month, more than 25,000 eighth- and ninth-grade students will sit for the SHSAT, the annual test that is the sole determinant of who will get to attend one of the city’s eight, top-tier high schools the following year.

The eight schools — Bronx High School of Science; Stuyvesant High School; Brooklyn Technical High School; High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College of New York; High School of American Studies at Lehman College; Queens High School for the Sciences at York College; Staten Island Technical High School; and Brooklyn Latin School — are called the city school system’s “Ivy League.”

Only about 5,000 will be offered a seat.

De Blasio is proposing to substitute a system in which the top 7 percent of students in each middle school would be offered spots.

“This issue has been raging not for years but for decades,” said state Sen. John Liu (D-Bayside), chairman of the Senate Committee on New York City Education and himself a Bronx Science graduate.

“The main thing that is different this time is that it is so divisive along racial lines.”

Between April and June, state Sen. John Liu (D-Bayside) conducted half a dozen hearings around the city to hear what parents and educators had to say about the one-test system.

Despite having taken control of city schools, one area the mayor and schools chancellor have no say over is the exclusivity of the SHSAT for admission.

Under the state’s Hecht-Calandra Act, passed in 1971, the city is required to use the test as the sole criterion to evaluate students for admission — a restriction that was originally intended to keep the city from imposing some form of racial balance on Bronx Science, then the most selective high school in the country. The law, as written, has come to cover all eight specialized high schools.

That makes Liu, a former city comptroller, a key figure in the fight over the test’s future.

Any change to Hecht-Calandra will have to go through Liu before it gets to Gov. Cuomo, who has so far steered clear of the hot-potato debate.

The state Assembly’s Education Committee, headed by Assemblyman Michael Benedetto (D-Bronx), held a hearing last May on the SHSAT.

But it has not yet stepped up with a plan.

Liu has been treading the thin line that separates Asians — many low-income for whom the elite high-school system offers the most accessible path to climbing the social ladder — and blacks and Hispanics — who make up two-thirds of the general school population but only about 10 percent of the enrollment at the eight specialized high schools.

Liu calls the admissions problem “very emotional, very divisive.”

“I don’t have the million-dollar answer yet,” he told the Chronicle last week.

The hearings, however. produced one, undeniable idea, he said.

“Only seven African American students made the cut” for the incoming freshman class at Stuyvesant High School this fall, said Liu. “Nobody thinks that’s an acceptable result.

“There is a large group of people out there saying: ‘Since, the results are unacceptable, the test itself is invalid,’” he said. “I’m not so sure.”

Limited in what steps they can take to remake the admissions system, Carranza and the mayor are, nonetheless, actively working to influence it any way they can.

Last year, they expanded a little-known program called Discovery — created more than 20 years ago to help minority students who just missed the cutoff scores to get into an elite school.

Five percent of the seats in the ninth-grade class used to be set aside for Discovery students. Last spring, that percentage was raised to 20 percent.

A federal lawsuit filed last December claims the mayor and the chancellor changed the criterion to reduce the number of eligible students from majority Asian middle schools.

The suit was filed by several Asian-American groups, the Parent-Teacher Organization of Christa McAuliffe High School in Brooklyn and the parents of three eighth-graders.

Chris Keiser of the Pacific Legal Foundation, the pro bono law firm that is handling the suit against de Blasio, said the parents group lost its motion for a preliminary injunction against the new rules going into effect last spring.

They are appealing in hopes of stopping it from being used again this school year, Keiser said.

“There is no question that the city instituted the Discovery set-aside to benefit black and Hispanic students,” the parents group said in an appeals brief filed last week, arguing that the new plan was intentionally discriminatory. “It repeatedly says so.”

Also, after several years of pilot programs, the way the SHSAT is given is being altered.

On Oct. 30, a school day, the test will be administered for the first time at more than 55 middle schools around the city.

Traditionally, the SHSAT was scheduled for a only a few locations and always on a Saturday or Sunday.

The new arrangement is expected to increase the number of eighth- and ninth- graders taking the exam, the Department of Education said, though it can’t predict by how many.

(The test will still be given under the old format on Oct. 26 and 27, a Saturday and Sunday, at select sites.)

Meanwhile, back in Albany, Liu is preparing to issue a report in late September or early October summarizing the proposals from parents that came out of the three months of committee hearings, including background on how select-admissions high schools elsewhere around the country and the world do it.

“I’m not discussing my own opinions” at least until the Legislature goes back into session next January, Liu said.

Don’t look for clues to what lawmakers may do in the report either, he added. “The report will not have a definitive proposal,” he said.

Welcome to the discussion.