Time to diversify New York City’s Discovery Program

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers remarks and attends the graduation ceremony for Brooklyn Technical High School at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Time to diversify New York City’s Discovery Program

Time to diversify New York City’s Discovery Program
June 23, 2017

When the results of the Specialized High School Admissions Test were announced in March, too few black and Latino students received offers of admission to New York City’s specialized high schools (Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and five others); only about 10 percent of the 5,000.

Class and race in America too often define a child’s opportunities, not because the child is unwilling to work hard or lacks the innate ability but because they are a casualty of unequal educational opportunities. For 95 years Brooklyn Tech, where I head the Alumni Foundation, has provided the children of immigrants, the working class and many other discriminated groups with an opportunity to obtain an elite education without regard to anything other than the ability to demonstrate on a competitive, academically rigorous examination that they have what it takes.

Borough Presidents Ruben Diaz Jr. of the Bronx and Eric Adams of Brooklyn are correct when they said in a report issued this week that a child’s zip code is too often correlated with their educational opportunities, as they call for expansion of gifted and talented programs into all neighborhoods and the provision of expanded enhanced curricular offerings and test preparation to middle schoolers with high potential to succeed in the specialized high schools. But I disagree with their calling for the elimination of the SHSAT as the sole admissions criterion for the eight test-in schools.

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I am pleased by the Department of Education’s announcement of its plan to increase the number of schools in underrepresented communities where the test will be administered on a school day, rather than on a weekend, from seven to 15. This should increase the number of students from these communities taking the test. These outreach efforts are sensible when combined with increased free test preparation because significant numbers of black and Latino students that score very high on the state assessment tests do not sit for the SHSAT

Brooklyn Tech and the Alumni Foundation, with the financial support of National Grid and the state Legislature, have pioneered a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) pipeline program targeted at underrepresented middle schools, and we know that these efforts can promote greater diversity. We identify promising middle school students in the sixth grade, and, in a two-year program, introduce them to STEM and provide free test preparation. Over the program’s three years, two-thirds of the students taking the test were offered admission to a specialized school. Of those offered admission to Brooklyn Tech, a majority were black and Latino. 

The city’s decision to expand the Discovery Program is another useful effort, but it needs to be tweaked to become a better racial and ethnic diversifier. While state law mandates the sole use of the test as the mechanism for selecting students for these schools, it also allows for the admission of disadvantaged students who just miss the cutoff score and attend a summer Discovery Program – where they are prepared for the college-level coursework they must handle in their first year at a specialized high school.

“Disadvantaged” has traditionally been defined by the city to mean either a student from a low-income family or from a family recently emigrated from a non-English speaking country. In the 1970s and 1980s significant numbers of black and Latino students qualified for Discovery. In 1970, 22 percent of Brooklyn Tech’s students were admitted through Discovery. That year 14 percent and 16 percent of the students admitted to Bronx Science and Stuyvesant, respectively, were admitted through Discovery. When the law mandating a test was first being considered, state legislators rejected putting a 14 percent cap on the number of students who could be admitted through Discovery and left it completely open. By 1995 a large majority of Brooklyn Tech’s student body was black and Hispanic, helped only in part by Discovery. 

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Since then, the demographic make-up of New York City has changed. The Asian-American community – which now sends the largest percentage of students to these schools – is just as poor as the African American and Latino communities. This means that using low income family status as the main screen for eligibility for Discovery will not likely yield the racial and ethnic diversity we need and want.

Obviously, today, just like in the past, there are laws preventing the city from deliberately excluding or including students in Discovery based on their racial or ethnic identity. But nothing prevents the city from using the educational inequality of the school system to identify students for Discovery. We need to redefine “disadvantaged” to also include attendance at a middle school that does not do a great job of preparing its students to do well on the test. This could be measured either by how few are admitted to a specialized school or by some other objective criteria, such as the lack of gifted and talented programs in the district or how poorly the bulk of the students do on the state assessment tests. Because most of the students attending the specialized schools come from a small number of the city’s very well performing middle schools, such an objective redefinition of what it means to be disadvantaged could significantly improve the possibility that Discovery will again become the racial and ethnic diversifier it was meant to be.

Surely, most would agree that students that come from underperforming schools but do well enough on the test to score close to the cutoff are disadvantaged when compared to students attending the small number of feeder middle schools catering to students from gifted and talented elementary programs and which, in turn, offer enriched math and English language arts instruction.

Our city has changed in the 21st century, and so must our definition of “disadvantaged.” By better targeting the Discovery Program to take into account the educational inequality of our middle schools we will continue to fulfill the mission of our specialized test-in high schools, which is to be an intellectual ”hot house” for the academically exceptional students of New York City.

Larry Cary, a Manhattan lawyer, is president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Association.

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Larry Cary
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