Last Friday, April 17, 2015, I attended a panel hosted by the Asian American Bar Association of NY on proposed reforms for the SHSAT, or Specialized High School Admissions Test (pronounced "shazat"). In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a federal civil rights complaint on the unfairness of using standardized testing as the only measure of admissions - the process, they assert, is cutting out worthy students from African American and Latino communities. The case is ongoing.
There are only a handful of Specialized High Schools in NYC that use the SHSAT as their one and only standard of admission, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. This single-standard admissions process has created "Hawaii's within New York" - for example, Stuyvesant right now is 72% Asian, 24% White, 2.4% Hispanic, and 2% Black.
The panel included a co-chair of the Specialized HS Task Force, a former NYC School Superintendent, senior counsel from the NAACP LDC, and the director of a non profit that provides test prep to students in Black and Hispanic communities.
A lot was said about why the SHSAT may or may not be fair. Some listed ways the exam was overly confusing and complicated, impossible to master without test prep. Others said testing was the only fair and objective measure. Some rallied against prep culture. Others blamed the issue on a lack of publicity. Some claimed that multiple measures admissions is more comprehensive and fair. Others pointed out that schools using multiple measures have their own issues around racial inequality.
The point that cut through the chatter, however, belonged to former Superintendent Edward Seto: "We need to take it back to the root cause." He pointed out that test scores for Latino and African American students were already significantly lower by early middle school. The specific format of the high school test was not the real problem; the problem was the inequality that pervades the system from much earlier on, and the administration's failure to address it. When panelists championed programs like DREAM, Seto pointed out that funding had been cut from the program's transportation, and many eligible students weren't even able to attend sessions. Whereas everyone postulated about why the SHSAT should be tweaked slightly this way or that, Seto encouraged us to think about the root issues, and challenged the administration to put its money where its mouth is.
I agree - if we want equality, we need to institutionalize it, equalize it across location and class, and fund it.