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Toward a Fairer Admissions Process

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New York City's specialized high schools, all unionized public schools, are some of the leading academic institutions of their kind anywhere. These elite schools, including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School, have produced some of the best and brightest minds in history. These include over a dozen Nobel Prize winners, as well as my colleague and Bronx Science alumnus Luther Smith. The specialized high schools give New York City students an opportunity for a world class education, and a better shot at success in life, without the hefty price tag of private school tuition. In fact, even students from private middle schools often attend the specialized high schools.

However, the current admissions process is shortchanging people of color, among others. For the most recent round of admissions to the specialized high schools, only 7 black students were admitted to Stuyvesant; Bronx Science, 18. It defies logic that there are only 25 black students in New York City who are qualified to attend these schools.

The dearth of qualified black students not admitted to specialized high schools is due partly to the design of the current admissions process. Students from lower class families, who are disproportionately people of color, are at a disadvantage under the current system. And a good way to correct for this predicament is to make the admissions process more merit based than it is now.

Currently, admission to these schools is based entirely on a single standardized multiple choice test, officially known as the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). In the past few weeks, there has been talk of changing the admissions process so that it would factor in other things, such as a student's grades. Advocates of reform, including elected officials, the United Federation of Teachers, and the NAACP argue that this would make the admissions process fairer, especially for the underprivileged and minorities.

Of course, there was an immediate kneejerk outrage from the usual gang of non-social justice-minded, right leaning sources proclaiming that this would undermine the academic rigor of these institutions by "lowering" standards.

The Daily News editorial board declared:

As he prepares to scrap single-test admissions, de Blasio runs the risk of watering down top-tier high schools.

The New York Post editorial board acted even more outraged:

Turns out, minority kids are not passing the exams in numbers proportional to their population. So pols are offering their usual condescending solution: lower standards.

Then there's this columnist at the Post:

Mulgrew and his legislative henchfolk...determined that the tests need to go -- to be replaced by an amalgam of formless subjectivities aimed at eventual ethnic balance in the selective schools.

But these bombastic comments are misguided and misinformed. Reforming the admission process would make it more merit based, not less.

This is not to say that the existing admission process is without value. Indeed, there are several advantages to using the SHSAT. Having every student take the same entrance exam means the admissions process gives all students the same chance to demonstrate their knowledge, regardless of race or class. At least in the abstract, there is a uniform standard for judging all students, and the test makes it impossible to lower the admission standards for, say, athletes or children whose parents give a sizable donation.

However, this concept of an egalitarian admissions process is not what happens in practice. As is the case with many other standardized tests, there is an industry of test prep programs for SHSAT, ranging from your run of the mill Kaplan and Princeton Review courses to private tutoring. Other students, particularly in New York's Asian American communities, will also take intensive evening, weekend, and summer courses, called "cram schools," for both test prep and improving math skills in general. This can start as early as third grade.

Obviously, children in lower class families, including people of color, end up at a disadvantage because their families do not have the spare income to afford these programs. A quick review of the Kaplan website finds that the standard SHSAT prep course costs $900; for $1,300, you get a course with, in their words, an "extra edge." A Princeton Review course starts at $1,100, and small group instruction will set you back $1,700. If a family can barely afford to put food on the table, perhaps even relying on government assistance, the notion that they have at least an extra $900 lying around is a pipe dream. On top of that, children in underprivileged homes may have to work to add to their families' meager income, or do housework to compensate for their parents' long work schedules, thus not affording them the free time for prep work.

Even children in middle to upper middle class households have their own handicap, because they may only be able to afford standard test prep classes, as opposed to the "extra edge" or private tutoring that can cost hundreds of dollars an hour. For that matter, even someone who took a test prep class might be at a disadvantage because he or she happened to pick an inferior company's classes. (Kaplan may have the better brand recognition, but some folks will argue that Princeton Review is superior.)

Test prep makes a big difference because, although a student ideally is learning in school the same info a test prep course goes over, the course also teaches tricks for taking the test. This means students are not just tested on what they learn in school, but on their ability to game the system. The result is that students are penalized for not being able to take a prep course, instead of rewarding them for all the studying they did for school.

For example, the SHSAT includes a section on reading comprehension where you are presented a short passage to read followed by questions to test your understanding. A good strategy is to check the questions before you read the passage. Instead of reading the passage start to finish, you only read the parts each question asks about and eventually you have an overall idea of the passage. (That tip right there is about $100 worth of test prep.)

Someone who did not learn this trick would never figure it out just by looking at the reading comprehension section. After all, in the test booklet the passage is printed first followed by the questions. The most recent version of the test even says, "Read each passage below and answer the questions following it." How could a student who didn't pay for test prep, or even paid for test prep that did not teach the above trick, realize that it's better to disregard the test's own instructions and read the questions first?

And this is but one of many tricks you would not know without test prep. Another is to figure out the answers to all questions on one page or section, and then fill in the answers on the bubble sheet for all of them at once. (There you go, $50 more in free advice.)

One of SHSAT's other major shortcomings is the content of the test itself. For one, the test includes only two sections: verbal and math. The entire test is multiple choice and completed on a bubble sheet. This means that, despite the test serving as the basis for admission to high schools specializing in science, it contains not a single question on science. Nor does it test the subjects of history, foreign language, writing skills, or grammar. Most public school students would have already taken tests on some of these subjects on Regents examinations or other standardized tests. That means useful existing data is left on the table, and demonstrates the feasibility of evaluating students in more subjects for the admissions process. What's more, the lack of any type of essay section means that students do not have to demonstrate any ability to cogently express ideas, as opposed to robotically filling in a bubble sheet. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that my firm is retained by MacAndrews & Forbes Worldwide, a holding company that owns Scantron.)

Besides the content SHSAT lacks, there is also a shortcoming to some of the content the test includes. In particular, although the verbal section includes some respectable sections like reading comprehension and logical reasoning, there is also a section called "Scrambled Paragraphs." In this section, students are presented with 5 sentences of a paragraph, which they are to rearrange into an order that, to use the booklet's own language, creates the "best paragraph." There is also no partial credit, so putting one sentence in the "wrong" order disqualifies all five.

Deciding the best order introduces a fair amount of subjectivity. Quentin Tarantino, or anyone else who does not always follow a strict linear order, would easily flunk this section. Besides that, students are unlikely to encounter the challenge of unscrambling paragraphs ever in their daily lives, unless perhaps one becomes an ancient historian who is piecing together fragments of a lost ancient text. And if we want to assess whether a student knows how to construct well-organized paragraphs, the test could require them to actually write their own paragraphs.

All of this speaks to a greater point: judging solely on one admission test is flawed and discounts the numerous other ways for students to showcase their academic achievements. A criterion as fundamental as a student's grades is not taken into account when determining admission. This would be like basing college admissions entirely on one's SAT score. Other run of the mill indicators that do not count include teacher's recommendations; a student's activities and achievements outside of school; interviews; or even scores on other standardized tests.

It is highly ironic, then, that conservative-leaning press outlets have so vigorously defended the current test, because it is more like the high stakes standardized testing common in socialist-leaning countries, like England, where a handful of tests basically determine someone's fate in life. For that matter, would the Post or Daily News ever hire reporters based solely on their scores on a multiple choice test, without even seeing how they write?

Notice that I have not mentioned one thing about affirmative action or whatever other term you might use ("racial quotas"; "reverse discrimination"). That is because a more merit-based specialized high school admissions process in and of itself would help minorities: instead of being judged based largely on the caliber of test prep outside of school their families could afford, students from lower class backgrounds could better show how they overcame all the odds stacked against them to work hard and do well during actual school hours.

There is one more gaping hole in the arguments to defend the status quo admission test. Although people matter-of-factly state that the existing test is purely merit based, such as this New York Magazine writer who says admission "is determined solely by performance on a test," the existing SHSAT is already weighted to engineer increased diversity.

As is well known, the Department of Education uses a formula to scale the raw scores to determine students' final scores. The DOE keeps the exact formula a closely guarded secret, though some of the details have come out, revealing the nuances and quirks to scaling raw scores. And while there is no weighting of scores based on race, the scores are weighted by neighborhood: students' raw scores are increased or decreased to have a more even distribution of students from different neighborhoods in the specialized high schools. Clearly, this has the effect of increasing racial diversity because heavily minority neighborhoods will have fewer students who can afford to get high scores, even though it is crafted in a way more likely to pass constitutional muster were someone to sue.

There are other quirks to the scaling of scores that are baffling. The weighted scores heavily favor students who perform well on one section even if he or she performed much worse on the other section. The New York Times uncovered that a student who scores in the 99th percentile on math but the 49th percentile in verbal would be admitted to Stuyvesant; whereas a student who scored in the 97th on math and 92nd on verbal would not. On the one hand, this is another example of engineering diversity by helping English Language Learners, especially Asian Americans, gain entrance to the specialized schools if they are highly proficient in math but not yet fully fluent in English. On the other hand, this arguably gives excessive favoritism to Asian Americans and shortchanges well-rounded students of all other ethnicities. And once again, a student who could not afford test prep or picked the wrong one is at a disadvantage, since he or she would not realize that the best strategy to study for the SHSAT is to focus almost entirely on the subject he or she knows better. (There you go: another $300 worth of test prep for free.)

And I am not saying that we eliminate the standardized test entirely. Indeed, having one uniform test, full of challenging questions that go way over my head, is useful for evaluating students because schools might use different standards for grades. And basing admission solely on GPA could cause a tragedy of the commons where every school inflates grades in hopes of their students having higher admission rates to the specialized schools. Nevertheless, colleges and other schools still find value in factoring in grades, and students deserve to have their history of academic achievement taken into consideration along with a score on one test.

What all of this comes down to is that the UFT and NAACP are right: while the SSHAT is a very good tool for admission to New York's specialized high schools, it should not be the one deciding factor. Instead, the admissions process should include a chance for students, even those who could not pay for test prep or cram school, to show all the hard work they have done that merits their attending one of the elite high schools. That is how almost every other admissions process works in America, and these schools should be no different.