Charges of Bias in Admission Test Policy at Eight Elite Public High Schools
A coalition of educational and civil rights groups filed a federal complaint on Thursday saying that black and Hispanic students were disproportionately excluded from New York City’s most selective high schools because of a single-test admittance policy they say is racially discriminatory.
The complaint, filed with the United States Education Department, seeks to have the policy found in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to change admissions procedures “to something that is nondiscriminatory and fair to all students,” said Damon T. Hewitt, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups that filed the complaint.
At issue is the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is the sole criterion for admission to eight specialized schools that, even in the view of city officials, have been troubled by racial demographics that are out of balance.
Although 70 percent of the city’s public school students are black and Hispanic, a far smaller percentage have scored high enough to receive offers from one of the schools. According to the complaint, 733 of the 12,525 black and Hispanic students who took the exam were offered seats this year. For whites, 1,253 of the 4,101 test takers were offered seats. Of 7,119 Asian students who took the test, 2,490 were offered seats. At Stuyvesant High School, the most sought-after school, 19 blacks were offered seats in a freshman class of 967.
“I refuse to believe there are only 19 brilliant African-Americans in the city; it simply cannot be the case,” Mr. Hewitt said. “It is a shameful practice and it must be changed.”
The test-only rule has existed for decades, as have complaints about its effect on minority enrollment. In May 1971, after officials began thinking about adding other criteria for admission, protests from many parents, mostly white, persuaded the State Legislature to enshrine the rule in state law.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a news conference on Thursday that the schools were “designed for the best and the brightest” and that he saw no need to change the admissions policy or state law.
“I think that Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “There’s nothing subjective about this. You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is. That’s been the tradition in these schools since they were founded, and it’s going to continue to be.”
A bill introduced in the Assembly last session sought to give the city power over admissions to the schools. But it was not brought to a vote, said Michael Whyland, a spokesman for the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver. “We’ll look at the issue and study it,” Mr. Whyland said. “Of course we want to make sure everyone has equal access to all our schools.”
A city Education Department spokeswoman, Deidrea Miller, said the department “has launched several initiatives to improve diversity.” Those include a free test-preparation course aimed at poor students.
Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for the federal Education Department, said the complaint “has been received and is under review.”
The complaint does not claim the test is culturally biased. But it says that its use has led to racial disparities and that there is no conclusive data showing the test predicts a student’s success.
Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group, said that in researching 165 selective high schools around the country, he found that New York City’s specialized schools were the only ones that used a single test as the sole admission criterion. Others use multiple factors including grades, teacher recommendations, essays and interviews.
“They are more like college admissions procedures, or private colleges, that try to look at a kid holistically,” said Mr. Finn, who, with Jessica Hockett, was a co-author of the recent book “Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools.”
But he said New York’s law was less worrisome to him considering the “dozens and dozens” of other academically high-powered schools in the city that do not use the test. “The larger challenge for the city is to prepare its minority children so that they will do well on the various screening requirements for the city’s large number of good high schools, including the ones that require this test.”
Most students interviewed Thursday at the Bronx High School of Science, one of the oldest specialized schools, said Thursday that they did not believe the test was discriminatory. When asked the uncomfortable question of why the racial imbalance existed, some students mentioned the intensive tutoring services that are out of reach of poorer families. But others did not hesitate to say that they believed the family culture of Asian and white students put a higher value on educational achievement than others.
“African-American and Hispanic parents don’t always seek out extra help for their kids and their kids don’t score as high,” said Manjit Singh, a senior. “But it’s the same test for everyone, so how can it be discriminatory? If you can’t handle the test, you can’t handle the school, and you’re taking up someone else’s spot.”
Noah Morrison, a senior who is black, was not ready to change the policy, either, but he agreed that “there needs to be more racial diversity at this school.”
“There are no black people and it’s horrible,” he said. “The test is fine, but there need to be more opportunities for people to do well on it. There need to be more test-prep programs in underachieving middle schools with high black and Latino populations. It’s a socio-economic problem.”
Sad that some areas of US society think everything should be dumbed-down for them, or that they should be spoon-fed help. I suspect more of this sort of thing will happen in the UK, too.