Brooklyn Boro

How the mayor’s plan would transform specialized high schools

May 13, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
Families of children enrolled in specialized high schools protest the elimination of the SHSAT. Eagle file photo by Mary Frost

Under the mayor’s plan to move away from the Specialized High School Admissions Test, more than triple the number of Hispanic and black students who attended specialized high schools last year would have received offers to enroll, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. And despite the dramatic shift in demographics, IBO found, student performance would remain high.

IBO conducted a report in February that looked at students’ demographics and prior academic performances to examine just who would have received offers for the 2017-2018 school year under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to scrap the SHSAT – the test currently used to determine admission to the city’s eight specialized high schools. The mayor’s plan would instead select the top-performing students from each of the city’s middle schools.

The mayor – who has received both political and parental pushback on the proposal – maintains that the plan would provide greater opportunity to traditionally disadvantaged youth.

Sarita Subramanian, a supervising analyst with IBO, supported these claims in her testimony at the New York State Assembly hearing on specialized high school admissions. While “roughly the same number of white students,” would have received offers under the mayor’s proposal, she said, five times as many black students and four times as many Hispanic students would have been tapped. And, though the number of offers made to Asian students would have been halved (compared to the high number of Asian students who ultimately attended), “they would still have comprised the highest share of offers.”

The share of offers made to female students would have increased to about two-thirds of all offers, and the share made to students in poverty would have grown to more than 63 percent, Subramanian said.

“We found that the proposed changes would have the greatest impact for top-performing black and Hispanic students, who were less likely than white or Asian students to attend a top-ranked high school in the city in 2017 to 2018,” Subramanian said.

She noted that, of those students who would have received offers under the mayor’s plan, only 12 percent of black students and 16 percent of Hispanic students actually enrolled. Forty-six percent of white students and 63 percent of Asian students who received offers attended.

While the demographics would shift dramatically, Subramanian maintained that the average student achievement level would not change much.

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“We found that the average grades in seventh grade for students who would have received an offer would increase slightly—by less than 1.0 percentage point—compared with students who actually attended specialized high schools last year,” she said.

The share of students who would have been proficient in English Language Arts would decline just 4 percent, according to the report, from 96 percent to 92. On the other hand, almost 90 percent of students would have been proficient in math, although virtually all ninth graders who attended a specialized high school last year were.

This year, only seven black students were admitted to Stuyvesant, the most selective of the specialized schools, according to Chalkbeat, which also reported that black and Hispanic students make up about 10 percent of enrollment in specialized high schools, but about two-thirds of all public school students citywide.

On the other hand, Asian students make up more than 60 percent of enrollment in the schools but just 16 percent of students citywide.

Despite backlash to de Blasio’s plan, a Quinnipiac poll released in April showed broad support for overhauling the admissions process, Chalkbeat reported.

According to the poll, 63 percent of New York City voters favor admissions changes to boost diversity, with another 57 percent willing to scrap the sole entrance exam in support of other measurements.

Friday’s hearing saw arguments from both sides.

According to the Forest Hills Post, Queens Congressmember Grace Meng submitted written testimony strongly rebuking the mayor’s plan, calling the SHSAT a “clear, level playing field” and instead calling for greater access to test prep.

IBO is a publicly funded agency that provides nonpartisan information about the city’s budget and mayoral proposals.

The proposal to scrap the SHSAT would require a new law from the state legislature.

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