No, It Should Not Take $5 Million to Improve Diversity at the Specialized High Schools

Sometimes this blog departs from its focuses on international terrorism and Donald Trump and looks at issues in New York City, where this website is based.

In recent years, increased attention has been paid to the lack of diversity at New York City’s specialized high schools. There are currently eight elite public schools – Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School, and five others that weren’t on the list when I was a kid – whose admission is based entirely on the multiple-choice Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT, pronounced shuh-ZAT, or the “Stuyvesant test” as we called it back in the day).

For years, people have lamented how few black and Hispanic students receive admission to the specialized high schools, particularly at the three inveterate specialized high schools. This school year, Stuyvesant High School, which has the highest required SHSAT score, admitted only nine black students and fourteen Hispanic. Also disconcerting is that total black and Hispanic students admitted to specialized high schools went from 595 last year to 530, a drop of about nine percent.

There has been talk in recent years of reforming the admissions process, with people arguing that basing admission entirely on a standardized test is flawed, in large part because wealthy parents (and even non-wealthy ones) pay for test prep that black and Hispanic parents are far less likely to afford. (My boss William Lynch III actually wrote a poignant piece in Huffington Post that articulates in much greater detail the issues with the SHSAT.)

Understandably concerned, Democratic lawmakers in New York State’s legislature have proposed a $5 million package of initiatives to better prepare students of color for the test.

While that is well-intentioned, the fact is that with only a couple of reforms the admissions process could produce more diversity without any additional money.

How so?

Well, for one, the test is bizarrely weighted to overwhelmingly favor high performance in one of its two subjects, verbal and math, even if a student does not have full comprehension of the other. The New York Times uncovered in 2005 that a student who scores in the 99th percentile in math but 49th in verbal would get a score high enough for admission to Stuyvesant. Meanwhile, a student who scored in the 97th on math and 92nd on verbal would not.

The result ends up being, in practice, that the top schools admit large numbers of Chinese students who scored high in math, thanks in part to attending “cram schools” outside normal class hours, but may have only partial fluency in English, which is a major handicap in such rigorous schools.

Why the city’s Department of Education weighs the test like this is not entirely clear.

So for one, weighing the test subjects more evenly is likely to help admit more students who are not Asian-American, and for that matter are likely better prepared to handle school subjects across the board. While that would probably benefit white students the most, nevertheless it should manage to inch up the number of black and Hispanic students admitted. A little bit, at least.

And here is the second cost-neutral reform: structure the test dramatically differently each year while testing a consistent body of knowledge that students learn in school. In this way, it would be much harder to gain a huge advantage via test prep because families could not pay for their children to learn how to game the system. (My recollection is that Kaplan used to offer a money-back guarantee for its SHSAT prep class, making it literally possible to buy your way into the specialized schools.) Granted, there would undoubtedly then be a slew of classes offered to refresh students on the subjects covered, but at least a high-performing student of color would already be learning them in school.

This, I suspect, would do even more than re-weighing to level the playing field for black and Hispanic students.

I am not saying these two reforms will end educational inequality per se, but at least try these two before spending $5 million to better prepare students to game the existing flawed SHSAT. Then consider how much we need to spend to continue to fix educational inequality.

And in the meantime, what do we do with the $5 million? Give it to me? Perhaps instead that money should be spent helping people of color get out of poverty and improve educational outcomes that way.

(Disclosure: the author took the SHSAT in the 1998-99 school year, and used Kaplan test prep. He received admission to Bronx High School of Science.)