My journey shows why specialized high school admissions must change

Today, as a state legislator I find myself in an interesting position; I am often in the middle of key debates regarding the segregation of our city’s schools. And I wonder how it is we are still wrestling with the same divisive issues that dominated our country more than 60 years ago.

Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte

Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte a katz/Shutterstock

In 2014, as I celebrated the life-changing experience of becoming the first Haitian-American from New York City to be elected in to the New York state Assembly, I knew that I owed a big part of my victory to my alma mater, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which was at the time one of four specialized high schools in New York City.

Today, as a state legislator I find myself in an interesting position; I am often in the middle of key debates regarding the segregation of our city’s schools, which in many ways mirrors the conditions of our country prior to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. And I wonder how it is we are still wrestling with the same divisive issues that dominated our country more than 60 years ago.

With a sense of tragic déjà vu, reactionary forces are once again pushing back against any proposed integration of prestigious, but largely segregated, schools. This development is so predictable that it would be comical – were it not for the terrible consequences. Already, several irate New Yorkers have called my district office to voice their displeasure with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to diversify New York City’s elite specialized high schools. Many of these phone calls possess the same overt racial animus of years past, with arguments that had served the same purpose then: to maintain the broken status quo.

For a young black or Latino middle schooler living in Flatbush in the 1980s, the thought of going to one of the crown jewels of New York’s public schools seemed unimaginable. Even though I was ranked third at my middle school and enrolled in a gifted program, I did not for a moment consider taking the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test in order to apply to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, or Brooklyn Tech. Left to my own young devices, I determined the SHSAT would be too difficult and too culturally biased for me to perform well on it. Instead, I opted to apply to the fourth specialized high school, LaGuardia. Although the school was the most competitive school of its kind, I based my decision in part on LaGuardia’s different application process, which entails a performance audition and tends to attract more culturally diverse applicants.

While I was very lucky to attend a specialized high school, I am not the only black state legislator to do so. Three other black state legislators, Sen. Jamaal Bailey and Assembly members Latrice Walker and Tremaine Wright, all attended one of three schools that used the SHSAT, having achieved the required score for admission. But many excellent students who have gone on to be leaders in our communities missed the cutoff score for admission. Who knows what opportunities they were denied because their family did not have the means for an SHSAT prep course?

Regardless of whether or not we passed the SHSAT and attended a specialized high school, all of us have a responsibility to create a more equitable system for future generations of black and Latino scholars. We should ensure that we leave the door open for those who will come after us, lest we fall into the trap of elitism.

Our specialized high schools have not escaped the scourge of segregation plaguing the rest of our public school system. In 1990, there were 212 black students in all of the classes at Stuyvesant. By 2005, there were only 66 black students in the whole school. Black and Latino students are about two-thirds of the New York City public school population but they are only 15 percent of the applicants offered admission at one of the now-eight schools using the SHSAT.

Think about how many students are top performers and yet cannot envision themselves at any of the specialized schools, a class of educational institution that is supposed to yield high-performing graduates. Do we continue to leave these black and Latino high performers behind? How can we fix this?

I agree with Mayor Bill de Blasio that the SHSAT has flaws and I am open to reforming what is currently a culturally biased test, perhaps scrapping the test altogether. Additionally, I believe we should be cognizant of the historical origins of the SHSAT, which was enshrined into law via the Calandra-Hecht Act in 1971.

Many critics of the law at the time, including then-Mayor John Lindsay, believed the act was intended to halt the then-fledgling effort to desegregate the top high schools in New York. Additionally, the design of the test favored white and affluent students. It still does, as many families cannot afford tutors or prep materials for the test.

Finally, many in our black and Latino communities continue to struggle to create a stable studying system due to various forms of socioeconomic deprivation. If we are going to continue to include the SHSAT as part of specialized high school admission, the test will need to be rewritten in a culturally neutral manner.

The SHSAT should not be the single requirement for admission. I propose making the test 20 percent of the applicant evaluation. Decisions would also be based on a student’s grades, a personal statement, extracurricular activities, interviews and recommendation letters.

Many critics of this move will insist that the SHSAT should remain, as they believe it is the only method of fairly measuring a student’s capabilities.

To these critics, I would point to the fact that some top law schools, including Harvard's, have decided to allow the LSAT to be an optional exam – a change which indicates that re-examining how institutions select their students is not impossible.

Recently, the University of Chicago announced it will no longer require the SAT or the ACT for student applications. The decision was viewed as a watershed moment by experts who note that the school joins 175 other colleges and universities that have decided to make the standardized tests optional. The SAT and ACT often favor students from high-income families who can afford test prep, books and expensive tutors. The decision to move away from the SAT and ACT will likely lead to a more diverse college population and will create more equal outcomes in our higher education institutions.

Mayor de Blasio’s decision to expand the Discovery Program to bring high-scoring students from low-performing middle schools to the specialized high schools is progressive. However, I believe that he and the city should brace for a backlash to these efforts. History and my personal experience indicate that any attempt to create a more equitable racial and economic educational system will be legally challenged in courts. Both Regents of University of California V. Bakke and Grutter v. Bollinger are examples of cases in which efforts to diversify and repair institutional exclusion of minorities were met by cries of “reverse racism.”

One of my own alma maters, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, implemented an informational session for minorities. The session was a single-day event in which alumni of color met with prospective applicants of color in an attempt to motivate them to pursue an MBA from Northwestern. That one day inspired me to apply, and it helped me overcome my fear of the Graduate Management Admission Test. In the end, I was accepted to not just the Kellogg School of Management but to another remarkable institution, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Unfortunately, I was told that because of the increase in minorities getting into these programs, the minority information session had come under scrutiny and it was eventually removed in that form. On its surface, the program was innocuous enough; nonetheless, much like in Bakke, which challenged the use of racial quotas in the admissions process as unconstitutional, several white students argued that the meetup unfairly advantaged students of color.

The mayor’s recommendation to allow the top 7 percent of public school 8th-graders into specialized high schools will most likely be hard for reactionary forces to fight, as the policy would benefit all students from all neighborhoods who are performing well. In a recent article in The Atlantic, two graduates of specialized high schools noted that a contributing factor to the segregation crisis in these schools was the discontinuation of honors programs in the city’s middle schools. The article also noted that the resegregation of middle and elementary schools in New York City during the 1990s and 2000s, by exacerbating the social stratification and educational inequality that harms black and Latino students’ SHSAT scores, further contributed to the lack of diversity at specialized high schools.

The current disparity demands that the problem of segregation be met forthrightly, and the mayor’s proposal to accept top performers from all of our middle schools would substantially change the specialized high schools’ demographics. I cannot pretend to predict what fate awaits the mayor’s proposals, or anyone else’s for that matter, but I can say that this conversation is overdue.

Several lawmakers and pundits are putting forth the idea that the city should simply build more specialized high schools. While I am not opposed to the idea of creating more specialized schools, I view it as insufficient to solve our current crisis. There are students now who desperately need access to the educational opportunities these schools offer and they will not be able to wait for the creation of new schools.

Finally, the construction of five new specialized high schools has done little to slow the segregation crisis, as they are only slightly more diverse than the original three. If five new schools did not create much diversity, further construction won’t either.

The fact that a student who was among the top three performers in her middle school could be denied a place in any of this city’s top high schools because she wouldn’t do well on a single standardized test is absurd.

It will take the bold changes advocated by the mayor to ensure this city lives up to its progressive promise.