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'It Was Racist Then And It's Racist Now': NY Assembly Wrestles With Specialized High School Admission Testing

Supporters of the SHSAT rally outside City Hall in advance of hearing on school integration on May 1st.
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Supporters of the SHSAT rally outside City Hall in advance of hearing on school integration on May 1st. Jessica Gould / Gothamist / WNYC

Proposals to do away with a standardized test that has long been the key to some of New York City’s best schools continue to spark debate between parents, administrators, and elected officials who could vote to abolish it in the next month.

For almost 50 years, state law has required three of New York City’s top public schools to rely on a single, standardized test for student admissions. During the early 1970s, the state legislature enshrined the tests into law amid a push to integrate Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Technical, and Bronx Science high schools. Nearly a half-century later, these schools remain highly segregated; out of tens of thousands of students who took the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) this year, only seven black students were admitted to Stuyvesant—down from 10 last year.

“It was racist then, and it’s racist now,” Brooklyn Assemblymember Charles Barron, who supports eliminating the test, said during a heated state Assembly hearing in Lower Manhattan on Friday.

Across the specialized high schools, more than 50 percent of offers went to Asian students, 28 percent for white students, 6 percent for Latino students, and 4 percent to black students.

Since 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed for an expansion to the admissions requirements for the eight specialized schools that rely solely on the test, and last year, he proposed eliminating the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) entirely in exchange for moving to admit the top 7 percent of students from across the city instead. According to New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, that would boost the presence of black and Latino students at specialized high schools to as high as 45 percent of the student population.

But the proposal has sparked conflicts over how best to serve the city’s students, particularly among the city’s Asian-American communities, which make up a significant portion of the students at the specialized schools and whose members often see admission as a path towards upward economic mobility.

Friday’s hearing opened with some of the simmering tensions boiling over. Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim started by stating the Asian community was not consulted in discussions about changing the admissions test, and the test’s opponents have unfairly cast Asian immigrants as privileged during the debate.

“That process itself has been very painful to hear as a community,” Kim said in his opening statement.

In response, Carranza noted that he has been targeted for his role in the process because of his own ethnicity.

“How disrespectful is that, to impugn my integrity as the only reason to take it on because I am a Latino?” Carranza shot back.

But while Carranza and de Blasio have pitched the proposal as a means for the student populations of specialized high schools to finally reflect the ethnic diversity of New York City, members of the black and Latino communities are divided on whether changing the test is the best way forward.

Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, who represents parts of Brooklyn including Flatbush and Midwood, said she has been a horrible test-taker throughout her life and was only able to succeed because her teachers were able to see her other academic strengths.

“Thurgood Marshall, he fought for this very hard. He would be turning in his grave to see our very own people are fighting,” Bichotte said. “How could black and Latino alumns of these specialized high schools, or just parents, be against fixing this disparity?”

But ahead of the hearing, Public Advocate (and Brooklyn Tech graduate) Jumaane Williams joined National Action Network regional director Kirsten John Foy outside for a rally urging the city to add more specialized high schools and establish other ways of measuring academic achievement than simply doing away with the SHSAT. And during his testimony, Williams said that without the test, he would not have gotten into Brooklyn Tech.

“If they had used grades, if they had used behavior...if they had used attendance...any combination of that, I would not have had an access point to this quality education,” Williams said. “That may have changed the trajectory of my entire school career and my entire career, period.”

Williams said an alternative could be to also offer seats to students who demonstrate achievement on other measures alongside the SHSAT. He believes that would open up opportunities to underserved communities across the city without pitting them against each other.

“We may disagree on the test, but we all agree there’s a problem with the system,” Williams said.

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