Keep SHSAT, maintain excellence and improve lagging schools

Keep SHSAT, maintain excellence and improve lagging schools

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alexander rozenberg started this petition to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and


Poor quality of K-8 education in New York City, rather than the admissions test (SHSAT) leads to the lack of diversity in Specialized High Schools. Fix failing schools and provide educational opportunities for everyone instead of focusing on just the 4% of the high performing students and destroying the jewels of the educational system. 

Text of the letter to the Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the New York Senate Education Committee:

We are writing to you to express our concern about the proposed changes in the admission process to the eight specialized high schools in New York City and seeking your support in the rejection of these changes. 

As you know, the New York State law requires that the Specialized High School Admissions Test be the sole criterion for admission into these schools. The SHSAT is an objective and fair way to select the most talented students for a rigorous and demanding instruction.

Critics of the SHSAT point out that the racial composition of the specialized high schools does not reflect that of the city as a whole, with some minority groups overrepresented and some underrepresented. Focusing on this single dimension of diversity, mayor De Blasio proposed to abolish the SHSAT and use other criteria, including subjective ones in order to achieve a balanced representation of racial minority groups.

We believe that this is a wrong and potentially illegal way to address one of the most difficult societal problems. The proposal aims to achieve what amounts to a racial quota system. This leads to affirmative quotas for some minorities and restrictive quotas for others. The negatively affected minority groups have filed lawsuits against this proposal.

Furthermore, the proposal has already strained the relationships between different groups in the multiracial and multiethnic New York City. Instead of leading to more harmonious relationships, it is pitting minority groups against each other.

If implemented, the proposal will lead to the destruction of the crown jewels of the educational system of New York City, the United States, and the world. Alumni of three of the specialized NYC high schools went on to receive 14 Nobel prizes, a total number only a few countries in the world have achieved. Among them, The Bronx High School of Science has the honor of being the world’s top Nobel prize producing high school. A great number of alumni of these schools are breaking new grounds in science and technology, and are thus contributing to the welfare of humankind. What are the reasons for this unparalleled success? Most importantly a rigorous and demanding curriculum is made possible by a careful selection of exceptionally well prepared middle schoolers.  

Under the mayor's proposal, instead of SHSAT, students will be selected from the top 7% of their respective middle schools, provided that they are at the top 25% of the New York state test. Under this proposal, a large number (about half by our estimates) of students admitted to the specialized high schools will be performing at the level 3 proficiency. According to the NYS DOE’s definition, “Students performing at this level ... demonstrate knowledge, skills, and practices ... that are considered sufficient for the expectations at this grade.”

The level of proficiency “sufficient for the expectations of the grade” is hardly a demonstration of adequate preparation for the demands of the challenging curriculum at the specialized high schools. Moreover, under the Mayor's proposal, more than 300 students who fail to show proficiency on the state test would be admitted to the specialized high schools! This will mean that, on the one hand, a large number of students will be unable to keep up with their peers, and, on the other hand, the level and intensity of instruction will have to be significantly lowered. In other words, both the best schools will be destroyed, and many capable but unprepared students will fail.

We believe that there are constructive ways to help a greater number of talented NYC students gain admission to specialized high schools without compromising the objectivity, quality, and rigor of the admission process. Rather than eliminating the test, a better approach would include disseminating information about specialized high schools early on and helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds prepare for it. The city could expand the very popular Gifted and Talented program, particularly in the neighborhoods with low socioeconomic status. It could also offer subsidized test prep for promising middle school students in underprivileged schools. Such a constructive approach would encourage and help the strongest students across the city prepare for a high standard of education, instead of pulling down and ultimately destroying an outstanding group of schools.

We recognize the importance of providing opportunities for talented youth from all backgrounds to receive the best education and allow their natural talents to flourish. As a society, we need to find a way to help those of them in need to overcome the initial lack of resources. The problem, however, has its roots much deeper than the admissions process to a few high schools. The results of SHSAT are a diagnosis, not a disease.

The red herring debate around high school admissions diverts the attention from the failure to bring quality education to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds and racial minority groups. The annually released NYS testing data paint an awful picture of disparity in students’ achievements. Relying on the data released by the DOE of NYC (available here <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> we note that the proficiency levels in math of Asian, Black, Hispanic and White ethnicity groups in grades 3-8 are respectively 72%, 25%, 30%, and 64%. The contrast in the results in English is almost as stark, with the above ethnic groups scoring at 67%, 34%, 36%, and 67%.

This data very clearly demonstrates that the problem starts long before students enter high schools. How can the racial composition of the selective high schools reflect that of the general population, when there is a huge disparity in proficiency rates in the middle schools? With students identifying as Asian displaying much higher levels of achievement than other groups, is it surprising that Asian-Americans see the mayor’s proposal as a veiled attempt at discrimination and illegal racial quotas?  

The mayor's proposal tries to cover up the city’s failure to provide quality education to all students instead of doing the hard work of improving the situation. The most insidious aspect of the proposal is not even its’ dishonest manipulation of admissions criteria, but rather that it will perpetuate the system of low achievement by vulnerable minority groups. Instead of improving the quality of education for all, it concerns itself with just 4% of high school students of New York City. It is a destructive proposal on all counts: it will do nothing to improve education for the vast majority of students; it will set up many of the best students for failure because of their lack of preparation; it will destroy the highly respected world-class educational institutions.

Voters across the city and the state recognize the proposal as being driven by hypocritical politics rather than by a genuine concern for the quality of education for all of our children. As such, it is a very misguided way of solving a real problem that our children and society are facing. The proposal needs to be reassessed and a wise farsighted solution has to be found.  

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