The NAACP Goes After New York’s Specialized High Schools: In Danger of Elimination?
by Dr. David Mandler
It seems that every few days, something new appears in the media about New York City’s Stuyvesant High School. And, without exception, the news has been focusing on the negative, exposing not only the less savory side of this most coveted of specialized high schools, but also, in the process, revealing the many biases and ideological inconsistencies that the people who are quick to point fingers harbor. Following New York Magazine’s article, “Cheating Upward,” (http://nymag.com/news/features/cheating-2012-9/) itself bordering on the exploitative as Robert Kolker shamelessly makes use of a 16-year-old student’s first hand accounts of how he cheated and enabled others to cheat only to have the punchline at the end this student–not at Stuyvesant anymore–wishes to become an investment banker (no bank will hire him after it makes a google search and finds this article), and an article in the New York Times that, itself, contains factual errors (no directive to ban laptops or Ipads has been issued by the new principal), comes the news that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is pursuing a complaint against specialized high schools, alleging racial discrimination.
While sympathizing with the NAACP’s goal to increase diversity at specialized high schools, I find the logic of the complaint seriously flawed. According to the Daily News, ““Black and Latino students don’t see opportunity at places like Stuyvesant because of the admissions process,” said NAACP attorney Rachel Kleinman. “It’s not fair and it’s bad policy.”
(http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/education/naacp-claims-discriminatory-admission-practices-city-elite-high-schools-article-1.1169240#ixzz27jy0g38E). Yet, if the test itself were really designed to screen out black and Latino students, no black and Latino students should be able to score well enough to gain admission into the specialized high schools at all. Clearly, while too few in numbers, black and Latino students do get into specialized high schools. Surely, nobody would be prepared to argue that the black and Latino students who are offered seats at Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech or Bronx Science are not really Latino or black. That would be totally absurd. So, it is not the test itself, per se, that is racially discriminatory.
Is the test discriminatory? Naturally, it is. All tests are. More precisely, well-designed tests intend to separate ill-prepared students from well-prepared ones in specific subjects. A math test that New York specialized high schools used to determine admission, by its very nature, cannot be designed to discriminate racially. Every student who has had the necessary motivation (both family and self-motivation) coupled with rigorous preparation that often goes beyond a year or two has a good chance of scoring high on the test. The real question is not whether or not the specialized tests should be abolished as discriminatory but, rather, why it is that preparation for the test is not widely available in elementary and junior high schools.
The NAACP also claims that the test does not have a “demonstrative relationship to past academic achievements or future academic potential…” according to Damon Hewitt, the education director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/26/naacp-file-complaint-bias-new-york-high-schools_n_1918027.html). Yet, in my view, this statement is not entirely accurate. This test measures a student’s verbal and math skills (http://schools.nyc.gov/Accountability/resources/testing/SHSAT.htm). Rigorous preparation with a high level of self-discipline and countless hours of study are certainly necessary to do well on this test. And having students who excel at studying and develop a degree of self-discipline is essential to creating a student body that is focused on meeting the high demands and pressures specialized high schools by their very nature place on students. Of course, the competition only intensifies with admission to specialized high schools, and, yes, at times, it can turn into a meaningless chase after points on tests and GPAs as students believe their chances of getting into Ivy League schools depends on a point here and a point there. Lastly, it must be stated that the above-mentioned skills that the admission tests requires are necessary but not sufficient for predicting success. A whole range of other factors emerge as junior high school students transition into high schools. In fact, a small percentage of students who are admitted to specialized high schools do not continue to do well academically in that environment and either drop out or barely manage to pass classes.
The NAACP should be clear whether it is seeking to abolish the specialized test or the specialized high schools themselves. For, it seems to me, that the test that determines admission has been in place in order to attract the kind of student who is best prepared to take the pressures inherent in schools with high academic expectations. And the “kind” of student, in theory and in practice, can come from any racial or cultural background with any immigration status.
Were the New York State Legislature to change the law and allow admission to be based on other factors as well, I fear that it would alter the very nature of specialized high schools in rather unpredictable ways. For schools in New York, as in the country, are extremely diverse not only in population but also in academic standards, despite the many standardized tests (most of which are fearfully dumbed-down). A student with a 95 average in one school may only have attained an 85 average in another school as a result of differing expectations and standards. Teachers even within the same school grade differently with some grading higher while others lower for the same work. A student who is “stuck” with a strictly-grading teacher would, thus, be at a disadvantage. Conversely, students in a school that rewards a modicum of effort in an environment that is largely apathetic stick out to their teachers and, therefore, get high grades for work that would be deemed average at best.
The only way to eliminate these systematic discrepancies is to have a test that places the bar high. Eliminating a test of this sort in favor of admission based on school grades would flood specialized high schools with students who are ill-prepared to take the kind of pressures necessary for academic success in that environment. The next step, then, would be to eliminate the environment to accommodate an ever-increasing number of struggling students at specialized high schools.
And that would mean the end of the specialized high school as we know it.
Clearly, the NAACP cannot wish the death of specialized high schools only because black and Latino students have not been prepared sufficiently well in high enough numbers to do well on the test. Instead, it should focus on ensuring that intensive preparation is available in every neighborhood of New York City.
Lastly, I want to point out that specialized high schools are not the only good high schools in New York City. Opportunity to excel academically and gain admission to top universities exists in a wide range of schools in every neighborhood of the city. Naturally, academic culture differs from place to place, as it should. But the goal is the same: to have students who become life-long learners, who are critical thinkers, and who can acquire good study skills that will enable them to learn new things in life, and last, but certainly not least of all, to prepare students for college if that should be their choice.
By the well-intentioned goal of trying to increase diversity at specialized high schools using the ill-conceived method of compelling New York State to eliminate the admissions test, the NAACP would only succeed in removing from New York’s educational landscape the type of specialized high schools that have created so many wonderfully successful alumni in the last decades, thereby seriously diminishing diversity in the types of public schools from which students can choose to pursue their dreams.
(The above article solely reflects the author’s views as of the writing of the article. It does NOT represent the DOE or Stuyvesant High School).