"Standards" v Diversity
The Specialized High School Achievement Test which the New York City Department of Education uses to select students to eight specialized high schools has come under fire from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. They have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education that the test is not predictive of success in these high schools and that its use has led to a diminution of the enrollment of minorities in the schools, which means fewer will enter the work force and the middle class.
According to the complaint “These eight prestigious institutions, … provide a critical pathway to opportunity for their graduates, many of whom go on to attend the country’s best colleges and universities and later become leaders in our nation’s economic, political, and civic life.”
Today we present the opinion of Edward C Sullivan, a teacher who spent 26 years as a member of the State Assembly. He was Chair of the Higher Education Committee for 16 years. He believes the current admissions test not only fails to predict success in the city’s elite programs, but that it doesn’t even set a standard.
“You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school.”
With those words, New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood by the State admissions policies that apply to several elite high schools, Specialized High Schools, here in New York City. These admissions policies result in de facto segregation in these public schools.
The Mayor rejected the complaint of the NAACP and others to the United States Department of Education, that the New York City Department of Education was out of compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In doing so, he seemed to reject diversity as a value in New York City’s elite public high schools, which he runs.
Was he really doing that?
Entrance to New York City’s elite high schools – Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech and others – is based exclusively on a test given in the 8th and 9th grades in New York’s schools. The highest scorers get into the best schools. There are no other criteria, and the NAACP and others claim that the results prove conclusively that the test is racially biased.
Less than 2% of Stuyvesant’s students are Black, in a school system which has 70% Black enrollment. Less than 2% of the students there are Hispanic, from a system-wide base of 40% Hispanic students.
Choosing the highest scorers in an exam is often presented as the fairest way of establishing standards. But it is not. In fact, choosing the highest scorers on an exam is the opposite of setting standards. It is saying, in effect, “We don’t have any standards. We refuse to establish standards. We have 900 open seats. The top 900 scorers will get those seats.” That’s not setting standards.
Are the skills tested relevant to the skills needed in the target school? Who knows? Who cares? Are there areas of study where the test taker fails badly, but which can be made up for by high marks in other areas? Who knows? Who cares?
For example, is the ability to read an essay at 1000 words per minute tested? That would be a standard, if you set it. If you can read that fast, you’re in. If you can’t, you’re out. It wouldn’t matter if you can read at 1600 words a minute. That would be an irrelevant skill.
If 1000 words per minute were established as the standard (or 1400, or any number; I’m just trying to make a point here), two things would happen, both good. Students preparing for the exam could set as their goal to read at that speed. And classwork in the target school could be designed with an assumption that all students entering the school could read at that speed.
If the ability to solve for x were established as a standard (or solving for two unknowns, or whatever), those who could show they could solve for x would be in, those who couldn’t would be out.
Again, if that were established as a standard, then students preparing for the exam could set as a goal solving for x. And it could be safely assumed in the target school that all students who passed the exam can solve for x.
Establishing standards would have, however, another benefit, one more appropriate to this discussion.
Assuming more students met all the standards set for entrance into the target school than there were seats available, it would allow the public, which after all owns and operates the schools, to choose from among those who have met all the standards for entrance to fill the seats.
And this would allow school leaders to take steps toward diversity in the student body. From among those who met the standards, they could select students for entrance that would result in racial or religious diversity more in keeping with the racial or religious diversity of the city, our glory and our strength.
This would be a good thing, assuming, of course, that those leaders, and the public that hires them, value diversity. Some do, some don’t. But even if we are mezzo a mezzo on diversity, the extremely low percentage of Black students in Stuyvesant High School cannot be considered acceptable.
58 years ago, the Supreme Court, in their 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, found that segregated schools were bad for students, deprived them of their self-esteem and of their rights. And the school segregation battle was on. It was fought fiercely, and integration won. Are we going to have to fight that battle all over again?
But setting standards for acceptance into advanced programs is not easy. Top educators should be given that job. The exams should measure whether student candidates for advanced programs and elite schools have the skills and knowledge necessary for them to handle advanced work. If they do, they should go into a pool of students, all of whom meet the established standards. From that pool a diverse student body could be chosen
Meeting diversity goals is not easy either. Is racial diversity the only goal? What about religious or ethnic diversity? Should the diversity reflect the general population or the student body? How do we choose from within the pool of those who meet the standards?
On Saturday Night Live, back in 2004, two comedians portrayed George W. Bush and John Kerry, the incumbent trying to talk the insurgent out of running for President. “Don’t do it,” the Bush character warned. “It’s hard being President! It’s real hard!”
It’s real hard, also, for our American society to do penance for the hideous sins that racism caused us to commit over the recent centuries. Those sins have left marks on both Blacks and Whites, and on their children and great grandchildren, down through the years.
But acts of true penance, such as racially integrating our elite public schools, can help us as a city and as a nation to shed the darkness of racism at last, and to walk in the sunlight of our ideals.
The sooner we begin this process, the sooner it will be completed. People who are afraid of hard tasks need not apply.