Stuyvesant High School et. al: The inevitability of selectivity

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

The High Flyer (Blog Banner)-NAGC.pngThere’s no perfect solution to the quandary that New York City has long faced in trying to inject greater equity into the most meritocratic of its schools: the nine selective public high schools, eight of which (including Bronx Science and Stuyvesant) rely on scores from a single test of interested eighth graders to determine who gets admitted. Exceed the ever-changing cut score for one of these schools and you’re in; fall a fraction of a point below and you’re out.

In one important sense, it’s completely fair, much like a school’s field day. Anyone who wishes to can enter an event, everyone who does is judged on the same metric, the scoring is objective (e.g., stop watches), and the top scorers win. In another important sense, however, it’s not fair at all, because in a city with a high school population that’s predominantly African American and Hispanic, the overwhelming majority of those who win admission to these schools are Asian and white.

That unfortunate circumstance is the result of many factors, some of them beyond the reach of public policy, much less of high school admission procedures. Other key factors, however, are led by the parlous condition of many of Gotham’s elementary and middle schools. The inequitable learning coming out of those schools is vividly on display in New York City’s results on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress:

Eighth grade math, percent of students at or above the “proficient” level:

  • Asian: 58
  • White: 45
  • Black: 10
  • Hispanic: 17

Eighth grade reading, percent of students at or above the “proficient” level:

  • Asian: 45
  • White: 46
  • Black: 14
  • Hispanic: 18

When we look at NAEP’s “advanced” level—which, realistically, is the population apt to win admission to these selective high schools—the data get gloomier still. Among eighth graders, only 1 percent—1 percent!—of Hispanic and black youngsters reached that bar in reading in 2017, versus 8 and 10 percent for white and Asian students. In math, it was 1 percent for blacks and 2 percent for Hispanics, compared with 13 and 27(!) percent for whites and Asians, respectively.

So long as Gotham’s elementary and middle schools are producing such discrepant results, there is simply no satisfactory way to reconcile the demanding standards of the city’s selective academic high schools with the desire for racially equitable admissions. That’s not a defense of the current admissions test. It’s a blunt statement that far too few of the city’s black and Hispanic eighth graders have been adequately prepared to succeed in those specialized high schools.

Making the situation yet more fraught, New York is an immense city and there aren’t nearly enough places in these nine schools to accommodate all the kids—of whatever race—who are academically ready and eager to enroll. Former chancellors Harold Levy and Joel Klein deserve plaudits for getting the number up to nine, but there would need to be nine times nine to meet the demand, and nobody on Mayor de Blasio’s team shows any signs of wanting to head in that direction.

My colleagues Adam Tyner and Brandon Wright find some merit in Hizzoner’s proposal to offer admission to these schools to the top students from every New York middle school, an approach with obvious surface appeal. It would indisputably change the racial and ethnic composition of the entering class. Because it would mean that far fewer white and—especially—Asian youngsters get in, the de Blasio proposal has met with fierce opposition from those quarters. It’s been denounced as blatant discrimination against Asian students, with advocates noting that, like most immigrant communities, their families live in relatively few neighborhoods and their children would thus be forced to compete with each other rather than on the present citywide basis.

What I also find deeply problematic about the mayor’s plan is the shaky basis on which top students would be identified in the middle schools: a mix of course grades and state assessment scores. Course grades are subject both to overall grade inflation and to teacher preferences, predilections, and idiosyncrasies. They vary from classroom to classroom and are often affected as much by kids’ behavior as their academic prowess.

As for state assessments, New York has—sadly—been watering them down for years. They’re designed to determine who is proficient and on a path to proficient, not who is best, and like most state tests they don’t even discriminate very well psychometrically among students at the high end. Moreover—even sadder—New York City has multiple middle schools where practically no students meet the state’s modest proficiency standard. Place the “top” pupils from those schools into Stuyvesant or Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech and one of two things will happen: either the kids will fail or the curriculum and pedagogy will have to be dumbed down to accommodate them.

The University of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski has suggested an interesting hybrid, whereby the City might use the state’s universal tests of seventh and eighth graders as a threshold measure to ensure that everyone at least gets considered (an important consideration, rightly endorsed by Adam and Brandon), then deploy the current Specialized High Schools Admissions Test—or something akin to it—to evaluate and select among those who did well on the first round.

That’s better than the mayor’s plan and an improvement on today’s process. But we’re still rationing too scarce an education resource and too many kids are ill-prepared to compete seriously for it.

It’s not their fault, dammit. It’s the fault of a broken system, and the way to fix it isn’t by messing with the most successful parts of it. It’s to build from the bottom up, starting with solid pre-K, extended kindergarten, letting no one leave third grade who isn’t reading fluently and doing arithmetic competently, infusing a rich, content-based curriculum throughout the early and middle grades. Many more of the elementary and middle schools serving poor kids would also benefit from beefed-up “gifted and talented” programs to give extra boosts to able and high-achieving pupils. While places in the city’s selective high schools are (unfortunately) limited, there’s no reason to limit the options and opportunities that lead up to them, and in time this will yield more well-qualified black and Hispanic eighth graders.

None of this is magical thinking. Any number of New York schools—many of them charters—are doing a bang-up job with poor and minority youngsters today, and many more could do it tomorrow. That’s what the city needs—along with a bunch more top-notch high schools.

Adam and Brandon weren’t wrong to try to devise a better way to ration today’s skimpy supply of seats in the top high schools. Neither was Dynarski—or many others who have offered schemes of their own. But in the end they, like Mayor de Blasio, are rearranging deck chairs on a small and very leaky vessel. The million school children in New York City deserve a capacious and seaworthy ship.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.