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  • Writer's pictureNYUL

Scrap the SHSAT, for diversity's sake: Mayor de Blasio is right about selective high schools

This week, as students walk into New York City’s top-performing high schools on the first day of school, what will they see? A plethora of books and bulletin boards. Welcoming teachers. College banners on the walls. What they won’t see? Black and Latino students.

Only 10% of admissions offers to the city’s “specialized” high schools went to black and Hispanic students this past year — despite the fact that they make up two-thirds of the city’s student population.

There are many factors that lead to this de facto segregation; one that we should all challenge is the enrollment system for top-performing schools, which has served as a barrier for too many of our traditionally underserved students. Roughly a quarter of middle schools and a third of high schools screen applicants based on grades, test scores, artistic talents and academic accomplishments. The students who excel by these standards are also often exposed to greater opportunities and support to succeed because of their socio-economic status. While segregation may not be the intent of these policies, it’s the outcome. And it’s hurting all of our students. Beyond morality, diversity — in our schools, in our workplace, in our community—matters. Diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and ideology helps us see the world and issues or challenges from new perspectives and spurs innovation. As the demographics of our nation continue to change, our children will need to know how to work together and do business together with those who may not look like them.

At the national level, we’ve taken a huge step backward when it comes to advancing diversity in education with the Trump administration’s reversal of Obama-era affirmative action policy that encouraged colleges and universities to consider race in admissions decisions. These guidelines were put in place because the Obama administration recognized the value of having a diverse student body. Instead of adopting and maintaining policies that increase racial segregation, we should be working toward greater parity in our schools that will lead all of our students to success.

Mayor de Blasio’s push to remove the Specialized High School Admissions Test for the handful of selective high schools considered the most coveted in the city is a step in the right direction. His proposal would provide an opportunity for more high-achieving students of color to gain admissions by demonstrating their academic progress through state standardized test scores and class ranking.

While I commend the mayor for also expanding the Discovery Program — which extends admission to students from low-income families who score just below the entrance exam cut off — it’s unclear how much this move will benefit black and Latino students.

Even though under his plan, 20% of seats will be designated for Discovery students with these changes, it does not necessarily equate to having more blacks and Latinos admitted.

As the mayor understands, the issue isn’t the cut score — it’s having admissions based solely on a test.

If we want to do right by our children, then we must advocate for more diverse, high-performing schools — from the elite “specialized” schools to your school around the corner.

We at the New York Urban League are taking these issues head-on by helping to educate parents and students about the SHSAT so more black and Latino students are aware of the exam. Exams are administered in the fall; check the New York City Department of Education website for test dates, and encourage students to jump on this opportunity.

But ultimately, we shouldn’t have to prepare kids for a test that consistently produces segregated schools. We should stop administering the test, and change to a better system.

I urge legislators to reconsider the admissions test in favor of a more inclusive admissions policy that will help diversify New York City’s public schools, not promote segregated schools. Our children deserve better.

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