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The SHSAT isn’t racist: A careful look at the Hecht-Calandra law shows it was not motivated by bigotry, nor did it initially harm blacks and Hispanics

2019-09-03

Parents, politicians and supporters from nine middle and elementary schools gather outside City Hall for a rally supporting keeping the SHSAT test for admissions to the city's academic high schools Friday, May 10, 2019 in Manhattan, New York. (Barry Williams/for New York Daily News)

As we prepare for a new school year, expect a return to the polarizing debate over the Legislature’s failure to pass Mayor de Blasio’s bill to eliminate the test used to select students for the city’s specialized high schools (Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and five others). And while much of the back-and-forth on all sides has been passionate and thoughtful, it has also generated accusations of racism that are both inflammatory and unsupported by historical facts.

At a committee hearing near the end of the recent legislative session, Assemblyman Charles Barron, the reform bill’s sponsor, publicly called the Specialized High School Admissions Test “racist.” This is simply not factually accurate; for one thing, the company that creates the test vets every question to eliminate ethnic or gender-based bias.

Barron then claimed the test “was born out of racism and it is achieving its objective, and that is to keep us out of the specialized high schools.” He was again wrong because Hecht-Calandra, the 1971 law mandating the test, was nearly unanimously passed with backing from black and Latino lawmakers.

To start, let’s look at the history and consider why claims it was motivated by racism are misplaced.

According to bill “jacket” sent to Gov. Rockefeller for signature, the law “passed the Assembly without debate by a vote of 142 to 5. In fact, Assemblyman Manuel Ramos and Assemblyman Samuel Wright, who are two of the leading spokesmen of the Puerto Rican and black legislators, set forth to the entire body that they approved the bill...”

The Senate voted for the law 49 to 3.

It passed because of fears the city’s Board of Education was about to convert the schools into regular or comprehensive schools. The then-chancellor had delayed sending out admissions offers that year. Unlike today, the only option besides specialized schools mostly was the student’s local high school.

Despite today’s claims, black and Latino enrollment rose dramatically after the bill’s passage. Brooklyn Tech, for example, was 25% black, Latino and Asian when the law passed. By 1976, black and Latino students became a large majority for nearly 20 years.

Today, most students at specialized high schools are East and South Asian, and many people recognize this has to do more with the city’s failure to provide high quality education in black and Latino communities than the test’s alleged “racism.”

The city also had the ability under Hecht-Calandra to promote diversity by maximizing an alternative admissions system called Discovery for disadvantaged students scoring below the SHSAT’s cut-off. There was no limit to how many students could be admitted through Discovery, just as the city was free to redesign the test.

In 1970, 14% of students admitted to the three original specialized schools entered through Discovery. About 20 years ago, the city decided to all but eliminate it.

And while the test has been changed many times by the DOE in the past 50 years, the city has never released a serious analysis explaining its reasons for changing the test or its impact on diversity.

Meanwhile, the city’s elimination of gifted and talented and enriched middle school academics primarily in black and Latino communities, which provide high-potential students a pipeline to success on the test and in the schools, cannot be laid on the doorstep of the state law, but rather on the city. The current chancellor resisted widespread calls to restore enhanced academics in communities underrepresented in the specialized schools, and now has before him a proposal by a city panel to eliminate all G&T programs, which would perpetuate the lack of diversity he and the mayor proclaim to find so unacceptable.

Restoring that programming, committing resources to educate all high-potential students, and creating additional specialized high schools in each borough to prepare students for the tech-based economy of the future is the path to restoring equity and improving diversity in specialized schools. Instead the city vows to try again to kill the test.

When will leaders learn?

Cary is a Manhattan lawyer and the president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.