There is a fierce debate going on in New York City over why the city continues to have an extremely low acceptance rate of Black and Latino students in its very selective, elite public high schools. What many insist is a merit-based system is proving to include plenty of implicit bias, that the New York Department of Education is acknowledging as the reason why “diversity is stagnant” in the city’s best learning institutions.
New data released by Department of Education officials indicates that the number of Black and Latino students at elite public schools remains largely unchanged, despite the fact that 7 out of 10 high school students come from those demographics.
By contrast, Black and Latino students only make up 11.1 percent of admitted students at the city’s best public schools for the 2020-2021 school year – a mere 0.5 percent increase from the previous year, according to admissions statistics from the NYC Department of Education.
While admission to these well-funded, academically superior schools is based on standardized tests, the Department of Education is finally admitting that testing methods are biased against Black and Latino students, particularly those who come from underfunded elementary and middle schools.
"Diversity in our specialized high schools remains stagnant, because we know a single test does not capture our students' full potential," says Richard A. Carranza, chancellor of the city's department of education, in an emailed statement, per NBC. "I am hopeful we'll move towards a more equitable system next year."
Eight of the nine specialized high schools admit solely on the basis of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University, labeled the test "the new Jim Crow of public education." She says standardized testing is not a sufficient metric to make such decisions.
"We know that students' learning and knowledge is cultural and that too often standardized tests are culturally biased, resulting in racial and ethnic disparities in results," said Wells, who is the executive director of Reimagining Education for a Racially Just Society at the university's Teachers College.
"New York City is the most segregated school system in the nation for black students, [and] the second most for Latinx students," David Kirkland, the executive director of its Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, said, according to NBC News. "It's unconscionable, those numbers, in a city that expresses a commitment to equity and diversity."
Kirkland believes there are a number of factors as to why Black and Latino students are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to standardized testing. Some of that comes from the inability to afford test preparation materials and culturally biased language and tasks that appear on the exam.
"It's not clear to me that those tests necessarily test ability as much as they test parents' income or sociological location," he said.
Much of the criticism surrounding the low admission rate is linked to a standardized test that some believe creates disproportionate barriers to groups already underrepresented.
As to how to fix the problem, Kirkland says there are a number of alternative admissions processes. He believes the University of Texas’ system is a good one as it guarantees admissions to a percentage of top performers at every high school – a more qualitative approach based on interviews and teacher recommendations.
NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio is one of the proponents of a new system. He has previously advocated for killing the admissions test in favor of the Texas approach. That said, the SHSAT has been a political hot potato with many remaining concerned about the potential side effects.
In 2012, LatinoJustice PRLDEF filed a federal civil rights complaint against the city's department of education along with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College. They claim thousands of Black and Latino students were denied admissions by the SHSAT.
José Pérez, the organization’s deputy general counsel, asserts that while the city claims to have vetted the test, the underlying issue remains unsolved.
"There are students that have excellent academic credentials, community involvement, leadership, but they may not just test well on this one test," he said. "Does that then preclude them from ever getting a seat at one of these eight specialized high schools, which are the ones that open up doors and are really pathways to Ivy League universities?"
As for Kirkland, it all comes down to an issue of policy: "Nothing has changed in terms of policy, therefore nothing has changed in terms of the outcomes that we get," he said. "There are recommendations on the table to do it, and we have to be brave enough, courageous enough, to take a hard look at them."