Don't Dare Mess With Bronx Science
Monday we wrote about the Specialized High School Admissions Test given by the Department of Education for admission to eight prestigious high schools in New York City including Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has challenged the current system on the basis of the small percentage of Black and Latino students admitted to the elite high schools. There is another disparity, with the number of Asians in these schools far exceeding their percentage of the population.
Opinion varies about whether the examination is predictive of academic success in these high schools, if the disparate scores of ethnic groups are the product of past or present discrimination and if the test should be changed to include non-verbal questions.
Today’s column, defending the examination, was written by Michael Benjamin, 1977 graduate of The Bronx High School of Science who served four terms in the New York State Assembly. It appeared in The New York Post on October 3, under the title “ Don’t Dare Mess With Bronx Science”
Tomorrow we will send you an article expressing the contrary viewpoint, written by Edward C. Sullivan, a teacher who chaired the Committee on Higher Education in the Assembly.
It has just been reported that Robert J Lefkowitz MD, a 1959 graduate of Bronx Science, has been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Dr Lefkowitz, who teaches at Duke University, is the eighth Bronx Science alumnus to receive the Nobel Prize.
There they go again: The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has filed a complaint with the federal Education Department claiming that the admissions test for the city’s specialized high schools bars black and Latino students.
The LDF is off-base on this one: The test is race neutral. I was sorry to hear that City Council Speaker Chris Quinn chimed in with the critics yesterday, as Comptroller John Liu and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz did last week.
Of course I’m annoyed that the percentage of black students at my alma mater, Bronx Science, is much lower than in 1976.
But I favor keeping the admissions test in place for the Big Three (Science, Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant) and Staten Island Tech to enshrine merit-based selection, as intended in state law. For solutions, we need to look elsewhere.
On one level, the city’s been trying hard to increase black and Hispanic admission rates to the “elite” high schools. Chancellor Dennis Walcott spearheaded initiatives to diversify these schools by identifying, recruiting and better preparing black and Hispanic students for the test. (And, these initiatives are now race-neutral — open to all.)
In part as a result, more black and Hispanic students this year were offered seats at a specialized high school than in the previous two years.
But the level is still low, because the city has had trouble recruiting black and Hispanic middle-school candidates. Fewer than half of those who participate in Walcott’s program eventually take the test — and the pass rate for those who do is abysmally low.
Sadly, the problems start much earlier. Local NAACP chapters know this — because they themselves have great difficulty recruiting student participants for ACT-SO, their science and technology competition.
Too many of us have come to have low expectations — which translate into lowered self-esteem and fear of failure. The soft bigotry of low expectations taints parents, teachers and administrators. It greatly undermines our children.
Some critics of the admissions test propose offering admission to the top students at every middle school. But the academic quality at city middle schools is, to put it politely, uneven. Far too many of them barely prepare students for regular high school, much less an “elite” one.
But this is at least getting closer to the real problem: Our miserable middle schools have become breeding grounds for high-school dropouts and teen pregnancy. We must fix our middle schools, lengthen the school year and provide accelerated academic tracks for bright kids.
Some others have to step up, too: Black and Hispanic parents must have higher expectations, demand more of their children and their teachers and reject their fear of failure.
Schools like Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant should be lifelines for promising black students trying to stay afloat in a system that’s a morass of chaos and low expectations.
Bronx Science was my lifeline in 1971. Back then, the only affirmative action needed was a solid academic foundation, excellent teachers and an after-school test-prep class at my Bronx middle school.
Forty years later, it should remain the case for this generation of students.
So, if they want to genuinely help increase the number of blacks and Latinos at the very best public high schools, the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund should focus on revamping the city’s middle schools, raising expectations and improving achievement.
For the record, I do oppose the bracket creep that lets newer schools (such as Brooklyn Latin, Queens School for Sciences, HS for American Studies) use the specialized admissions test. I suspect they do it for “bragging rights.” Such schools once relied on broader criteria (GPA, class rank, etc.); those criteria still better suit their mission of providing an honors program for college-bound kids.
But for the four specialized schools, an entrance exam is the only truly fair arbiter. That nearly 100 percent of all black and Hispanic kids who do enter these schools go on to graduate and then to college proves that the exam is a good predictor of success.
True equality of opportunity — not equal outcomes — must be our guiding principle. Lowering admissions standards will hurt children, hurt their future and hurt the competitiveness of our city, state and nation.