Towards A Peoples' Board of Education- NYC

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Racism & The NYC Specialized High Schools

From the Introduction to the report...

Each year, nearly 30,000 eighth and ninth graders compete for the chance to attend Stuyvesant High School (Stuyvesant), The Bronx High School of Science (Bronx Science), Brooklyn Technical High School (Brooklyn Tech), and five other public high schools that are among the best schools in New York City and, indeed, the nation. Known as the "Specialized High Schools," these eight prestigious institutions are operated by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE). They provide a pathway to opportunity for their graduates, many of whom go on to attend the country's best colleges and universities, and become leaders in our nation's economic, political, and civic life.

For decades, a single factor has been used to determine access to these Specialized High Schools—a student's rank-order score on a 2.5 hour multiple choice test called the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Under this admissions policy, regardless of whether a student has achieved straight A's from kindergarten through eighth grade or whether he or she demonstrates other signs of high academic potential, the only factor that matters for admission is his or her score on a single test. Because there is a limit to what any single factor can predict about a person's academic promise, let alone his or her potential to succeed and thrive in life, admissions decisions based solely on a high-stakes test have been roundly criticized by educational experts and social scientists. They also defy common sense. By relying upon a test as the sole criterion, the admissions policy for the Specialized High Schools does not fully capture any student's academic merit or his or her potential. This is particularly true of a standardized test given to thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds.

But there is an even more basic problem with the Specialized High Schools admissions policy. For decades, the NYCDOE has continued to use rank-order SHSAT scores as the sole admissions criterion, even though it has never shown that this practice (or the test itself) validly and reliably predicts successful participation in the programs offered by the Specialized High Schools.

As a result of the NYCDOE's exclusive, unjustified, and singular reliance on the SHSAT, many fully qualified, high-potential students are denied access to the life-changing experiences that the Specialized High Schools offer. In a community as diverse as New York City, it is particularly critical that these pathways to leadership be "visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity." Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 332 (2003). Yet, year after year, thousands of academically talented African-American and Latino students who take the test are denied admission to the Specialized High Schools at rates far higher than those for other racial groups.

The impact is particularly severe at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science—two of the Specialized High Schools that serve the largest numbers of students, have the longest track records of educational excellence, and are among the most popular for test-takers. For example, of the 967 eighth-grade students offered admission to Stuyvesant for the 2012-13 school year, just 19 (2%) of the students were African American and 32 (3.3%) were Latino. While these figures show a de minimis increase over the prior two years, they are worse than figures from three years ago. Indeed, the overall trend for the Specialized High Schools is one of increasing racial disparities over time. See Appendix A (Specialized High Schools Admissions Offers 2009-2012).

Because determining admissions to the Specialized High Schools based solely on rankorder SHSAT scores causes this unjustified, racially disparate impact, the admissions policy violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000d; 34 C.F.R. § 100.3. Moreover, there are equally effective, less discriminatory alternatives available to select academically talented students. Following the well-established model for college admissions, other high schools in New York City, New York State, and across the nation use admissions policies that consider multiple measures—not just one factor, such as a standardized test. Other factors may include middle school grades, teacher recommendations, leadership, community service, other aspects of applicants' own backgrounds and experiences, as well as the demographic profile of students' middle schools and neighborhoods.

When considered in combination, such factors help assess students' achievements and capabilities in the context of the opportunities they have received. At both the high school and college levels, admissions procedures that rely on multiple measures can yield classes that are both diverse and meet high standards of academic excellence. By continuing to rely exclusively on rank-order SHSAT scores to determine admission to the Specialized High Schools, the NYCDOE is failing to follow best practices among education experts nationwide, as well as the well-established test development standards set forth by the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education. Diversity of backgrounds and perspectives has always been New York City's and the United States' strength. It helps drive innovation, new ideas, and our national prosperity. See Grutter, 539 U.S. at 330-31 Thus, the key pathways to opportunity in our society, such as those provided by the Specialized High Schools, must be open and accessible to good students with bright educational futures from all communities. Ensuring all young people an opportunity to succeed is in everyone's interest. The Specialized High Schools admissions policy can no longer be allowed to deprive students of a fair chance to demonstrate their merit.

To redress this ongoing persistent pattern and practice of unjustifiable and disproportionate exclusion of African-American and Latino students from the Specialized High Schools, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College file this complaint on behalf of the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, La Fuente, the Alliance for Quality Education, New York Communities for Change, Black New Yorkers for Educational Excellence, the Community Service Society of New York, the Garifuna Coalition, USA Inc., Make the Road New York, the Brooklyn Movement Center, UPROSE and DRUM-Desis Rising Up and Moving.

To be clear, this complaint does not contend that federal law forbids any use of tests in the admissions process for the Specialized High Schools; but it does contend that federal law prohibits admissions policies that inappropriately utilize scores on tests, like the SHSAT, that have not been properly validated as a fair predictor of student performance. In the absence of any attempt by the NYCDOE to validate the SHSAT and because there are equally effective, less discriminatory alternatives available, the NYCDOE should not be permitted to use the SHSAT as the sole criterion to determine which students should be admitted to the Specialized High Schools. Instead, the NYCDOE—in consultation with the New York State Department of Education (NYSDOE), the organizations filing this complaint, educators, parents, and students who are directly affected—should collectively devise a fair and workable admissions policy. 

--------------------------- Racism & NYC Specialized HS