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To increase diversity at specialized high schools, City Council greenlights new task force

“We are the most diverse city in the country, but our specialized high schools do not reflect that.”

November 4, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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The City Council has authorized the creation of a task force to address racial and ethnic inequities in the city’s specialized high schools, including by reexamining the controversial Specialized High School Admissions Test.

Seventeen people, including parents, teachers and experts, will serve on the task force and study the current admissions system, as well as relevant Department of Education programs like DREAM and Discovery. The council voted to create the group on Wednesday, based on legislation sponsored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson and co-sponsored by six other councilmembers, though most of the appointees will be made by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The mayor and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have been pushing for the elimination of the SHSAT.

“We are the most diverse city in the country, but our specialized high schools do not reflect that,” Johnson said ahead of the vote. “It is disgraceful and something that all of us should be working to address. This bill does that.”

Johnson, De Blasio and Carranza each have a seat on the task force. The mayor gets nine additional appointees, and Johnson gets seven. Appointees must also include students, public school parents, department employees, teachers, psychologists and other experts, according to the bill.

According to the text of the bill,  the task force must meet no fewer than three times and is required to host at least one public hearing. The group will then have until May, 2020 to submit its recommendations to the mayor and the speaker, according to the legislation.

De Blasio and Carranza have argued that abolishing the test — the sole means of admissions for most of the city’s nine specialized high schools — would increase racial diversity in top institutions like Brooklyn Technical High School and Stuyvesant High School, which currently enroll disproportionately low numbers of black and Latinx students.

The administration — which has received pushback from political opponents and parents — had hoped to establish a new enrollment system allowing the top seven percent of students in each of the city’s middle schools to gain admission to specialized high schools. Supporters of the SHSAT argue that the administration’s plan is an attack on kids who already work hard to ace the SHSAT.

Brooklyn Councilmember Inez Barron, who represents East New York and whose husband, Assemblymember Charles Barron, sponsored legislation in Albany to eliminate the exam, spoke in favor of the bill before voting to support it.

“It has been documented that no other city uses one standardized test to decide whether or not students will be admitted to a particular elite school, as we call them,” she said, adding also that NAACP recently “brought a case saying that there was no predictive validity associated with this one standardized test.”

While black and Latinx students represent about 70 percent of the city, Barron said, they represent “about 10 percent” of the student body in the city’s specialized high schools. “We need to look at what the conditions are, and we need to look at other [means of admissions].”

Johnson credited Brooklyn Councilmember Mark Treyger, a former educator and chair of the council’s Education Committee, for his “leadership” and “partnership” on the bill to form the task force. When casting his vote to support the bill — which he co-sponsored — Treyger said that opponents and proponents should “at least agree that we have a major problem.”

“We should involve people at the front lines to help shape the process,” he said.

The bill’s passage comes under a week after an estimated 30,000 students participated in the 2019 exam.

Brooklyn councilmembers Robert Cornegy, Jr., Brad Lander, Farah Louis and Stephen Levin also co-sponsored the legislation, as did Manhattan’s Keith Powers.

Correction (Nov. 13, 3:15 p.m.): The previous version of this article cited an outdated version of the bill which was voted on. Information in the article has been updated to reflect minor changes. The Eagle regrets the error.

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