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Who Gets Into NYC's Elite Schools? Wrong Mix of Kids, De Blasio Says, Fighting Test

By Henry Goldman
June 23, 2014 11:55 AM EDT 275 Comments
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio presents the 2015 city budget at City Hall on May 8, 2014.
Photographer: Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio presents the 2015 city budget at City Hall on May 8, 2014.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office Jan. 1 promising to reduce economic inequality, said he wants to end a 43-year policy that restricts admission at the city’s elite high schools to students who score highest on a standardized test.

The rule has been debated since a 1971 state law made the test the only criterion to gain entry to eight specialized public schools that offer college-preparatory curriculum and whose alumni include Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners. Bills in the legislature backed by the teachers union and set to be reintroduced next year would allow use of other measures, including grades, attendance and scores on other exams.

“I do not believe a single test should be determinative, particularly for something that is as life-changing for so many young people,” de Blasio, who would need to persuade the state Legislature to amend the law, said last week. “We have to determine what combination of measures will be fair.”

De Blasio, 53, a self-described progressive Democrat who campaigned for more affordable housing and universal pre-kindergarten, won election in November by the largest percentage-point margin of any non-incumbent in New York history. One of his goals is to increase ethnic, economic and academic diversity among students inside the most competitive and rigorous high schools, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, without diminishing academic standards.

‘Certain Backgrounds’

“We cannot have a dynamic where some of our greatest educational options are only available to people from certain backgrounds,” de Blasio said at an April news briefing.

A graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts who received his undergraduate degree at New York University and master’s from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, de Blasio is no stranger to the rigors of standardized testing. His son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Technical, one of the specialized high schools that would be affected.

The current discussion is part of a larger one about high-stakes testing after 12 years in which former Mayor Michael Bloomberg advocated the use of such exams, saying they provide the most reliable way to measure student, teacher and school performance. Tests provide training for challenges that students face throughout their lives, Bloomberg said.

Bronx Science

The former mayor, who in 2002 gained control of the largest U.S. school system when the state backed his plan to disband the city Board of Education, is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

At the Bronx High School of Science, which requires the test, the alumni board in a June 20 letter asked the legislature to reject any changes to the test requirement.

“We stand for an admissions process that is a pure meritocracy, with one standard that is transparent and incorruptible,” the board wrote. “Preserving the objectivity of the admissions process is necessary to maintain the high educational standards of the specialized schools.”

De Blasio’s criticisms echo questions about high-stakes testing that former Mayor John Lindsay raised more than 40 years ago. His efforts to broaden admission requirements met with opposition from alumni and parents.

Albany Bills

“There are some kids who excel at standardized testing,” de Blasio said. “There are some kids who are incredibly great writers or creative thinkers, or artistic, and we need to represent that whole spectrum.”

Lawmakers in Albany didn’t vote on bills that would change the system in the legislative session that ended last week. The same proposals will be reintroduced next year, said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which wants the state law changed to recognize other measures of achievement.

“This has restarted a discussion we needed to have,” Mulgrew said. “We’ve found Republicans and Democrats who each say it’s unfair to base everything on one test, because a lot of kids can game the system. Ultimately, it’s about changing the definition of academic success.”

Chicago and Boston are among other systems in the U.S. that have broadened admissions to their most competitive schools with criteria other than a single test score.

Chicago, Boston

Chicago, which has 10 selective high schools, requires testing in reading comprehension, vocabulary, math and grammar as an admissions tool while also allowing principals to fill as much as 5 percent of available seats “outside of the regular selection process,” in compliance with district guidelines.

At Boston Latin Academy, Boston Latin School and the John D. Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, the single-test policy expanded to include class grades several years ago, said Maria Viera, assignment specialist for the city public schools’ office of enrollment planning and support. It’s “part of an effort to be more holistic and level the playing field, because some people do well on tests and some don’t,” she said.

In New York, the question of how to diversify the students admitted to those schools came up during a June 7 gathering of alumni of Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, whose graduates include four Nobel laureates, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, film star James Cagney and former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt.

Mostly Asian

Of the 3,292 students at Stuyvesant in this academic year, 73 percent are Asian; 22 percent white; 2 percent Hispanic; and 1 percent black, according to the city Education Department.

That contrasts with the ethnic make-up of the city’s 1.1 million public-school students, who are 40 percent Hispanic; 28 percent black; 15 percent Asian; and about 15 percent white.

“Stuyvesant was overwhelmingly Jewish in my day; now it’s predominantly Asian,” said M. Felix Freshwater, a 1964 graduate and trustee of the school’s endowment fund who attended the gathering.

Stuyvesant and the other specialized schools have for decades offered opportunities for high-achieving students who couldn’t afford private school, said Freshwater, who’s now a Miami surgeon.

“Having an exam seems fair, but how a student becomes prepared starts with how children are educated starting in pre-kindergarten, not a summer cram course,” he said. “We need to rethink the admissions criteria, but I’d feel more comfortable if educators were making the decisions, not the state legislature.”

The Specialized High School Admissions Test, devised and administered by U.K.-based publisher Pearson Plc (PSON), is a multiple-choice exam of verbal and math skills lasting two hours and 20 minutes.

Students are assigned to a school based on their score, with consideration given to preference. Citywide, 27,817 students took the exam in 2014 and 5,096 were admitted to one of the specialized schools.

‘Indistinguishable’ Scores

The city requires the exam for the eight schools even though the 1971 state law covered only three: Stuyvesant; Bronx Science, which counts eight Nobel laureates and six Pulitzer Prize winners among its alumni; and Brooklyn Tech, whose alumni include billionaires Leonard Riggio, founder of Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS) and John Catsimatidis, chairman of supermarket operator Red Apple Group.

The city also uses the test for the High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College; the High School for American Studies at Lehman College; Queens High School for the Sciences at York College; Staten Island Technical High School; and the Brooklyn Latin School.

A 2008 study of the test’s effectiveness found that thousands of rejected students achieved scores that were “statistically indistinguishable” from thousands who were admitted. The 37-page report, published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, was written by Joshua Feinman, chief economist for Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management in New York. In 1980, he graduated from Stuyvesant High School.

To contact the reporter on this story: Henry Goldman in New York at hgoldman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net Mark Schoifet

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