Are Admissions Criteria at NYC’s Specialized Schools Biased?

For years there have been complaints that admissions policies used by the elite, specialized high schools in New York City were biased against minority students. Now, the complaints have gone official. The New York Times has reported that a group of educational and civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund are [...]

For years there have been complaints that admissions policies used by the elite, specialized high schools in New York City were biased against minority students. Now, the complaints have gone official.

The New York Times has reported that a group of educational and civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund are claiming in a filing with the United States Education Department that the admissions policy that relies exclusively on the Specialized High School Admissions test is in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and should be replaced with one that is “nondiscriminatory and fair to all students.”

The ethnic and racial makeup of high schools like Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School stands in stark contrast to the rest of the city’s public school systems. While 70% of NYC students are black or Hispanic, a much smaller percentage of students from those racial backgrounds qualify to enter any of the schools that use the exam.

According to the complaint, 733 of the 12,525 black and Hispanic students who took the exam were offered seats this year. For whites, 1,253 of the 4,101 test takers were offered seats. Of 7,119 Asian students who took the test, 2,490 were offered seats. At Stuyvesant High School, the most sought-after school, 19 blacks were offered seats in a freshman class of 967.

Because of the disparity, city officials have previously considered adding additional admissions criteria, but protests from parents, the majority of whom where white, according to NYT, has led to a state law that only the exam can be used to determine admission to specialized schools. After the complaint surfaced, Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at a news conference and said that it isn’t a problem that schools designed to serve some of the best students in the city would use an exam to identify such students. In short, he didn’t think there was anything wrong with the admissions process and didn’t think there was any cause to amend it.

“I think that Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “There’s nothing subjective about this. You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is. That’s been the tradition in these schools since they were founded, and it’s going to continue to be.”

Even without adding additional criteria to the admissions process, the Department of Education has taken steps to improve the demographics of the incoming specialized high school classes. One initiative offers free tutoring sessions to help students from low-income backgrounds prepare for the exam.

Bronx Science students interviewed by the NYT seemed unanimous in their support for the exam, saying that they didn’t believe that it was discriminatory. Asked to then account for the racial disparity between the school and the rest of the city, some said it was more the issue with income, rather than race, since richer families could afford to enroll their children in prep classes to get them ready for the exam. There were some, however, who believed that there is a difference in attitude between white and Asian families and families of other minority groups resulting in varied achievement.

“African-American and Hispanic parents don’t always seek out extra help for their kids and their kids don’t score as high,” said Manjit Singh, a senior. “But it’s the same test for everyone, so how can it be discriminatory? If you can’t handle the test, you can’t handle the school, and you’re taking up someone else’s spot.”

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