Even though nearly 70 percent of New York City's public school students are black or Hispanic, very few will be attending the city's most elite public schools when the doors open next week. According to some alumni of these specialized high schools, that doesn't mean their admissions systems are necessarily unfair.
The chance to attend one of the eight exam-based institutions -- like Stuyvesant High School -- depends on the student's score on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). These schools are considered among the city's best, and competition to get in can be fierce.
"In my opinion, the test system is purely on the basis of merit. There's no room for discrimination or bias," Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, told The Huffington Post.
Cary is part of the newly formed Coalition of the Specialized High School Alumni Organizations, which represents over 100,000 graduates of those New York City schools. This week, the group announced that it believes the admissions process based on a single exam should remain unchanged.
According to data from the NYC Department of Education, black and Hispanic students last year made up only 12 percent of incoming ninth-graders offered spots at the exam-based high schools. This year, the numbers are basically the same: The share of black and Hispanic students accepted to the prestigious schools adds up to 11.5 percent. (Numbers in the charts below have been rounded.)
The New York state legislature established the entrance exam system in the early 1970s for Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School. As more specialized schools opened, they adopted the same system for the most part. (The city has a ninth specialized school, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, that chooses its students based on a combination of auditions and academics.)
Over the years, there have been attempts to reform the admissions process to ensure that the benefits of attending the best public high schools reach all communities in the city. Just this June, state legislators introduced a bill that would require the specialized high schools to factor multiple measures, such as GPA, into their admission decisions, as opposed to relying only on the SHSAT.
The Coalition of the Specialized High School Alumni Organizations disagrees with that approach. The group argues instead for a new initiative to give underrepresented communities access to better SHSAT test preparation and for a policy of letting students on the cusp of admittance apply again.
"In underrepresented communities, the NYC Department of Education should develop elementary and middle school enrichment/accelerated programs to prepare students for the SHSAT and the rigors of the specialized high schools and to help them become more college ready," the coalition said in a statement on Monday. "There should be more and better access to information regarding the SHSAT, the admissions process, and unique features of each specialized high school."
Black and Hispanic students have certainly been trying to get in. Data from the NYC Department of Education shows that 46 percent of those who applied via entrance exam this year were black or Hispanic. But only 4 percent of these black applicants and 5 percent of Hispanic applicants scored high enough to be offered spots. Overall, only 18 percent of test takers were offered admittance.
Cary pointed out that the department's data also show that some of New York City's top screened schools -– another category of public schools that rely on multiple measures like grades and interviews for admittance -- are actually less socioeconomically diverse than the schools that rely on the SHSAT.
He defended the exam process as "the fairest system you can have."
"I'm unaware of there ever being an allegation of anyone getting into these schools because of who they were," said Cary.
In recent months, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration has decried fact that few black and Latino students are gaining admission to the specialized high schools -– and has said it may look into alternatives.
"We must do more to reflect the diversity of our city in our top-tier schools -- and we are committed to doing just that while ensuring high academic standards. In the coming months, we will continue looking at ways to address the gap that has left so many of our black and Latino students out of specialized high schools," a spokesperson for the NYC Department of Education told The Huffington Post.
The department has been soliciting feedback from "internal and external stakeholders" about how to address the racial disparities in the exam system, a spokesperson said. That "will be one of many ways to generate ideas."