NAACP Legal Defense Fund on Discrimination in NYC's Elite High Schools

Damon Hewitt explains why admissions policies in New York City's top schools are racially biased toward Black and Latino students.

Posted: 10/09/2012 12:30 PM EDT

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other organizations recently filed a federal civil rights complaint with the Department of Education claiming that New York City's eight elite high schools have been discriminating against African-American and Latino students. The NAACP LDF believes that the process used to gain admission into these schools, which is based on the results of a standardized test, not only works against diversifying student bodies, but also goes against the best practices to ensure good education.


Damon Hewitt, director of the education practice with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, talked with BET.com about how the organization built its case against the policies currently in play in New York City, why it feels that New York City's policies are discriminatory and what improvements would foster a larger Black and Latino student population at these top schools.


Your complaint about discrimination policies in New York City's eight elite high schools is being reviewed by the Department of Education. When did the organization begin investigating this case?


Over the last several years, through a series of public records requests, a significant amount of legal research, and literature on education research and the best practices for how tests should be used and how admission decisions should be made, we started to see a pretty disturbing pattern that the policy in New York City had remained in place for decades despite the fact that it contradicted all known educational research. The significant racial disparities suggested to us — and now we feel that that's confirmed based upon our research — that there was a discriminatory impact on African-American and Latino applicants.


And how did you conduct your research for the case?


We asked for records regarding whether the tests had ever been studied to determine whether it was a good and fair predictor of who performed well in the high schools, and the Department of Education told us it had not studied it.

We asked for information showing that the test was aligned to the curriculum they actually taught in the city's middle schools, and the Department of Education couldn't produce those types of documents either.

We also asked for a significant amount of data regarding who's taking the test, data regarding who's faring well on the test in terms of getting offers of admission, and we have that all broken down by race. So based upon the documentation or lack thereof from the Department of Education and also based upon the extreme racial disparities in terms of who's successfully gained admission to these schools, we were able to build a case that the policy is discriminatory and that the policy defies all known educational research and even defies common sense.


How could the current policies be improved?


The only way to gain admission to these schools is a sole test, and the Department of Education assumes that the test predicts anything, let alone who will succeed in the schools.

The test also isn't related to the student's past academic performance. Our view is that the test actually ignores academic merit. Some have said that not using the test as the only criteria will somehow lower the standards, but we think that's false.

Actually making students demonstrate their merit across a broad swath of indicators including their regular middle school tests that are mandated by the state, including their grades, when you have to use multiple criteria and you demonstrate your merit across those criteria it actually raises the standards. It makes it more difficult for the applicant to get in the system. 


Do all students have access to this test in their middle schools or have you found that some are left in the dark?


It's certainly a problem that not all students are actively encouraged to take the exam. We spoke with advocates who know of students who have been dissuaded from taking the exam. One advocate told us that she knows of a student who completed the application and gave it to a guidance counselor, but that the application was never submitted. 


But simply having more African-American and Latino students taking the test wouldn't even remotely begin to address the real cause here. For example, there are over 12,000 Black and Latino students who took the test last year, but only about 700 received an offer to any of these eight schools. In contrast, there were three times fewer white students who took the test, only 4,000 or so. Yet still, over 1,200 white students received offers of admission. So even though they took the test in far fewer numbers, white students got into these schools in much higher numbers.


Similarly, more test prep also isn't the answer because we'd be preparing students for a test that doesn't predict anything. We believe that there are very well-prepared completely qualified African-American and Latino students in this community. Last year, Stuyvesant had only 19 offers of admission to Black students in a class of almost 1,000, and we simply believe there's something wrong with that picture. There are many more brilliant African-American students than 19 in this city, but they're simply not getting a fair shot for opportunity to gain admission into these schools.


What do you propose is the best way to get African-American and Latino students into these schools and then have them excel once they're there?


We propose using instead of a single criterion to use multiple measures, to consider other factors including grades, including other test scores that are mandated by the state, including other things like geography representation. There are some school districts within the city that hardly ever send students to these specialized schools yet we know that there are bright students everywhere throughout the city. So all those factors should certainly be on the table.


Do you have a school district in the country that exemplifies what you're hoping will eventually happen in New York City?


We're not trying to hold any particular district as a lone example. What we need to see in New York is a consideration of multiple criteria that works with the unique context of New York City. What we'd like to see is various factors come to the table, state leaders, local leaders and also the applicants who filed the complaint, for all of us to come to the table and devise a policy that considers that multiple criteria so we can pursue academic excellence and also ensure broad diversity at the same time.



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