How to address the Stuyvesant problem

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Students at Stuyvesant High School. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
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It’s long been a problem with no easy solution: New York City’s specialized high schools’ admissions process appears dismally out of whack with the city’s diverse population.

Seven black students were admitted to Stuyvesant this year; 18 black students were admitted to Bronx Science. Efforts to change this, over a period of decades, have had limited results.

The newest attempt at a legislative fix, a bill introduced in Albany by State Senator Simcha Felder and supported the United Federation of Teachers, would require the schools to use multiple measures, including G.P.A. and attendance records, in determining admissions. The idea is that taking into account more factors would provide less of an unfair advantage to wealthy middle schoolers whose parents can pay for extensive test prep for the exam the schools now rely on.

But the legislation has failed to gain much traction. Even Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has promised to change the specialized schools admissions process, has not endorsed the bill.

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Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said, "the D.O.E. is engaging with many stakeholders including principals, teachers, advocates and parents to consider innovative ways to make our top schools representative of the city's diversity while retaining high standards."

In all, 27,817 students took the exam last year, and 5,096 were admitted to one of the eight schools. The number of black students who took the exam was 6,566, representing 24 percent of the total number of test-takers. Only 246 of them, or 4 percent of the total number of admitted students, received an offer to one of the eight schools. By contrast, Asian students constituted 30 percent (8,226) of total test-takers last year, and 33 percent (2,725) of the total number of admitted students. 

According to D.O.E. data, the average percentage of black and Hispanic students at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, the so-called "big three" of the eight specialized schools, is 11 percent combined, down from 14 percent in 2007.

The exam is mandated by state law, the Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971, for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. The test was created to preserve the rigor of the schools. It was praised by Michael Bloomberg as the only objective means of making sure entrance to the city’s best schools wasn’t open to bias or gaming.

The latest push has reignited an intense debate about how to make the schools more diverse, and how much more they should be in the first place.

Capital asked a panel of education and testing experts how they would go about diversifying the city’s specialized high schools. Their ideas ranged broadly—from implementing a quota system to creating a University of Texas-inspired top-ten percent plan—highlighting the lack of any one obvious solution.

The experts said the work required some kind of systemwide change that would create better school options for minority students from the outset, a fundamental barrier to improving urban school districts across the country.

Many pointed out that gaining admission to these schools is only the beginning of the challenge; the system would have to make changes to ensure all students succeed in a highly competitive, sink-or-swim atmosphere. The range of answers suggests how long and hard educators and officials have struggled to better integrate schools and how far-reaching any effective changes would be.

>Eric Nadelstern, former Department of Education official, professor of practice at Columbia University's Teachers College: Guarantee a spot at one of the specialized high schools for the top one percent of scorers on the exam from each middle school in the city. It’s attainable and easily packaged into a bill. A kid excelling at a poor or mediocre school and still reaching the one percent has shown a dramatic ability to succeed in difficult circumstances.

This is the game-changer, and it’s fair. It could be one percent, and if it works, go to two percent of the top scorers. It’s a way to get greater diversity but still use performance on the exam as merit-based criteria. We can’t penalize children for educational institutions that don’t adequately prepare them.

>Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College: What you need is some measure on which minority students will look better than they do in regard to their standing on the test, that can be put into the factors that determine selection into the schools.

Look at what happened in Texas when the the top 10 percent rule was passed, guaranteeing admission to any of the University of Texas campuses to students ranked in top 10 percent of their high school graduating class. The good thing about that: it was a performance-based measure. Every high school, regardless of what population it was serving, had kids who would become eligible for admissions based on performance. But the problem is, any shift in the mechanism means there are some people who might have felt their record justified their admission who suddenly might not be admitted, and that could be a challenging political problem.

What if we used something like a middle school class rank? As far as I know no one has looked to see if that could be predictive of high school success. But one of the problems with the proposed bill is that it’s scattershot. You look at attendance and say, really? It undermines the broader argument that relying on performance-based measures could result in a more diverse entrance class in the exam schools.

>Joseph Viteritti, chair of Hunter College’s urban affairs and planning department: You have to identify minority kids early on that have potential to succeed in a very competitive environment and cultivate their capabilities. It’s not only a question of getting in, it’s a question of doing more when you get there. You don’t want to have a situation where people can’t compete, and you don’t want to create the illusion that if you let these kids in by alternative means [besides the test] that means you’ve solved the problem.

So what are adequate preparations for people from minority areas, and can we come up with mechanism that can be used to screen people that is not manipulable through the use of money? Maybe there should be more discussion about this other than ‘let’s get more kids in there’ -- so we put 10 more black kids into Stuyvesant, but you want the kids who get there to be prepared, to have a fair chance. They certainly don’t have a fair chance now.

>Robert Tobias, former Department of Education official, professor of teaching and learning at N.Y.U.’s Steinhardt School: You can make it something like applying to college. Just like the SAT is becoming less important, the specialized high school exam could be less important. Use data that doesn’t tend to stigmatize or bias the pool in the way that test scores do. You can use G.P.A. and attendance, but you probably want to use softer kinds of data as well, like a student portfolio, teacher recommendations, and information about a student’s background. The data used in the decision-making process should be more comprehensive, but new measures arent simple to implement.

You never get a system that’s going to be ideal in terms of making equitable decisions about kids while also being balanced in terms of logistics and costs. It can be done, but it makes the whole process more complex.

>Pedro Noguera, professor of education at NYU's Steinhardt School: I don’t think those schools are that great. I would not tell a top African-American student to go to one of those schools, I would tell them to go to Medgar Evers Prep. It’s a much more supportive environment and the quality of education is better.

If you graduate from Bronx Science with a C average, what college are you going to go to? It’s a total sink-or-swim environment. That’s not what I would hold up as the model. And then there’s an important issue are equity and access—do kids in poor neighborhoods have access to good schools?

>Ernest Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators, the city principals' union: Admit the top one or two percent of students at middle schools, and beef up instruction at the middle school level by better implementing Common Core standards. 

Then provide test prep in low-income schools, for free. We have to make sure the test is not culturally biased against kids who who don't have test prep.

And you can't take for granted that parents are going to know everything that's available for their children. Parent of Carmen Fariña's engagement with parents needs to be letting them now, at the elementary school level, about their children's options for high school. Students are deciding in seventh grade where to go to high school, but that material should be going to parents at the elementary school level so they can talk about what they want to do to prepare their child, and not wait around until the child is in middle school and parents are less engaged. Parents are usually more engaged before their child turns 12 or 13. 

>David Bloomfield, professor of education at CUNY’s Brooklyn College and Graduate Center: My preference would be to simply repeal the Hecht-Calandra statute. It’s not an appropriate matter for legislative decision. Get this out of the Legislature, which can only visit the issue, it would appear, every forty years.

Have educators who understand these things based on their expertise, and advise an adequate replacement. If we’re looking for the perfect replacement we’ll always quibble.