Full disclosure: I’m a Brooklyn Tech alum and I’m quite proud of the fact that I had what it took to get into an elite school. The primary reason why I got in wasn’t because of expensive test prep or a legacy of attendance at competitive schools; my single, working class Mom enrolled me and my siblings in an after school program called Science Skills, which taught advanced science and math to elementary school aged children. By the time I took the SHSAT, I had already passed the Biology, Sequential I & II Regents and I was only 13.
You can’t start prep at 12 and think that’s enough. The quality of education leading up to the age of eligibility to take the specialized high school exam has to be on par with what’s on the exam, otherwise the trends will continue. And I should add, it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when Brooklyn Tech was almost 40% Black/African American. It would be interesting if a study was done to find out what attributed to the shift, but that would take work and might not yield an answer as simple as ‘dump the test!’. Truth is, getting rid of the test doesn’t necessarily guarantee diversity. A brief, from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, found that of all the reviewed alternate entrance methods, only one: admittance of the top percentage of 8th graders, affected the demographics (but was insignificant in the standing of Black students). So, why not just use that alternative? Problem solved!…Not really. Here’s three reasons why:
Not a lot of 8th graders take it
Approximately, 25,000 out of the 80,000 eligible students take the SHSAT citywide. That’s roughly a third of 8th graders and of that amount, 20% receive offers, representing about 5,000 students total. It is quite admirable to want greater representation of Black and Hispanic students, but they have to take the test first. Of the 591 schools included in the data, 137 had ten or fewer students take the test and 470 schools had 5 or fewer students receive offers. When you’re surrounded by those odds, it’s understandable if many kids don’t bother (see nyc-shsat-data).
Not everyone wants to go
There’s only eight specialized high schools (excluding LaGuardia) and 430 other district high schools across the city and this number doesn’t include private or charter schools. Children have varied interests (and quite a few options) and they are not entirely centered on STEM. Some get into one of the elite 8 and elect not to go, others would prefer schools closer to home or that require less travel.
Not everyone is ready to get in
It’s been years since I was a student at Tech so I can’t speak to the academic standards they have today, but I am comfortable saying that not everyone is ready for it. Specialized high schools are for a certain type of student. Getting in is one hurdle, but staying in and succeeding is another. An often referenced statistic is that 10 NYC schools represents 1,200 of the near five thousand offers made. What does that say about how middle schools are preparing students for the rigors of an intense secondary education? The 800-pound gorilla that is yet to be addressed is inequity in middle school education; for the 2018-2019 school year, the entire borough of the Bronx had 7 gifted and talented programs, District 2 in Manhattan had 8. This kind of disparity suggests that children aren’t being given equitable foundations that would spring board them to success in an elite high school and that issue is more worthy of scrutiny than any standardized test.
Bonus: Not all of it is segregation
The term segregation has been used heavily (and inaccurately) in this debate to polarize the conversation. Segregation is not a choice. The test is. The dominance of Asian students in the city’s specialized high schools has been going on for years and to suggest that state law which requires the test is a de facto form of racism is dishonest . To imply that Black and Hispanic students are being kept out by the test (which was harder years ago and, as I mentioned at one point, was in place when Tech had a majority Black student body) ignores history and offers overly simplified answers that ignores most of the reasons above.