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Deselecting Black and Hispanic Students in New York City

Deselecting Black and Hispanic Students in New York City

New York City’s school system, by far the largest in the country, has for many years maintained a set of selective high schools, on the theory that some students deserve—“will benefit more”—from better educations than others. These schools can be taken as exemplified by Stuyvesant High School, the graduates of which are assumed to be well on their way to equally selective colleges and glittering careers. In the days when the City College of New York, CCNY, was “the Harvard of the Jews,” Stuyvesant was the Groton or Phillips Andover, a vehicle for talented strivers without regard to class or ancestry. This is not true today for the City’s Black and Hispanic students. Out of 756 students offered admission to Stuyvesant High School this year, only 11 are Black and only 23 are Latino. That’s 1.5% and 3%, for those who are keeping score, in a city where 41% of the students are Hispanic and 24% are Black. Those Black and Hispanic Stuyvesant freshman are so few that they could in theory all be the children of United Nations representatives and high city officials. Those numbers and percentages vary little from year to year. This is an extraordinary pattern of segregation, screening out, deselecting, Black and Hispanic children in New York City from the opportunities available to Stuyvesant alumni.

Is this deliberate? Of course not, it will be said. What responsible person would deliberately create admissions procedures at New York City’s flagship high schools so as to result in such outrageously racist outcomes? But what does “deliberate” mean in this context? It certainly looks like a duck and walks like a duck. It doesn’t matter how decision makers feel about it, by any reasonable criteria, it is in effect deliberate—this year, last year, every recent year—because it continues.

Much of the debate about New York City’s specialized high school demographics focuses on the gateway Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). The test is said to be aligned with state learning standards. The state also tests students for their proficiency in reference to those standards at each grade level. As the specialized high schools, and Stuyvesant in particular, cater to students “who can best benefit” from the education offered by those schools, it will be useful to examine the grade 8 test outcomes at Level 4, the highest score on the state tests, in relation to the outcomes of the SHSAT.
In New York City, Level 4 results on the grade 8 mathematics test vary from 51% of Asian students in Brooklyn to 34% in the Bronx; from 35% of White students in Brooklyn to 22% in the Bronx; from 15% of Hispanic students in Manhattan to 10% on Staten Island; and from 13% of Black students in Brooklyn to 7% in Queens. The borough differences hold for White, non-Hispanic students as well, and for a lesser, but still notable, extent for Hispanic students. The difference between student levels of achievement among boroughs is much greater for Black students, in this case a large gap between Brooklyn (better) and Queens (worse). There are many variables at play here, including socio-economic family status, but it is difficult to avoid the thought that for all students the schools in Brooklyn are simply better at teaching mathematics than those in the Bronx, and that those in Queens and Staten Island are especially less able to teach Black and Hispanic students than those in Brooklyn. These differences between boroughs are quite egregious, but not as troubling as the racial/ethnic differences within each borough and across the system as a whole. The 7% of Black students at Level 4 in Queens is hardly more than a rounding error. That situation is similar in Manhattan, the Bronx and on Staten Island for Black students and only slightly better for Hispanic students. It would be difficult to make the case that New York City’s Hispanic students are receiving the support they need in terms of mathematics instruction and impossible to make such a case for the City’s Black students.
This inequality is epitomized by the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. The City’s Department of Education website tells us that the test is based on state standards. The implication is that it tests what has been taught. In 2018-2019, 1,631 Black students in New York City reached Level 4 on the state tests, as did 2,807 Hispanic students, 2,034 White, non-Hispanic students and 3,576 Asian-American students. That is, 16% of those students reaching Level 4 in New York City in that year, the most recent with reliable data, were Black, 28% were Hispanic, 20% were White, non-Hispanic and 36% were Asian-Americans. All had learned mathematics to the highest level of the state standards. And yet, at Stuyvesant High School, just 1% of the students offered places that year were Black—11 of 756—and 3% were Hispanic. If, on the other hand, the percentages reaching Level 4 had been reflected by the school’s admissions, that would have resulted in 120 Black freshmen at Stuyvesant and 212 Hispanics. The difference between the 120 qualified Black students and the 11 who were admitted is not trivial, as is that between the 212 qualified Hispanic students and the 23 who were admitted. It looks like a duck; it looks like discrimination. It is objective proof of discrimination.
In sum, two levels of evident discrimination in the New York City school system are revealed by the selective high schools admissions process. First, and arguably the most important, the system is remiss in teaching mathematics—that increasingly important basic skill—to Black and Hispanic students. Secondly, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test itself is racially and ethnically discriminatory on the face of it: among students judged equally well-prepared in mathematics at grade 8 it deselects practically all Black and Hispanic students.
There are two obvious remedial actions. One is pedagogical: improve mathematics instruction for all students in the Bronx, while improving it in a focused way for Black and Hispanic students across the system. As for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, if the New York City Department of Education, and the State of New York, cannot remedy this situation, adult supervision is needed: call the sheriff—in this case the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Ask the Office for Civil Rights to exercise over-sight, or even to take the system into receivership, until the outcomes of the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test are no longer blatantly discriminatory.
Michael Holzman

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