It’s not often New York City can look to Texas for policy solutions, but fixing the admissions process for our specialized high schools is one such instance.
The problem is clear: Great high schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech are failing to serve the amazingly diverse public school population of our city. New data from the Department of Education prove it.
Though 67% of public school students citywide are black or Latino, blacks and Latinos comprise just 10% of the incoming class at the city’s eight specialized high schools, which admit students using a single, standardized exam taken in eighth and ninth grades.
The numbers from Stuyvesant, the most selective of the specialized high schools, are especially extreme. This year, it offered admission to only 10 black students — down three from last year — out of an accepted class of 902.
Having been aware of the problem for years, the city has made some improvements to its testing policies, without changing the underlying admissions criteria. It’s created more convenient testing times and supplementary exam prep and increased outreach and communication to students. These measures only take us so far. The problem doesn’t just remain; it’s growing. The city must take bold steps to update the admissions process — and it doesn’t need to scrap the test entirely to make them happen.
Some critics want to combat the diversity problem by supplementing or replacing the standardized exam with a series of subjective measures. But there’s strong evidence that this approach could very easily lead to even more unfair results.
We can keep the test — and make admissions far more fair — if we take inspiration from the Lone Star State.
Administrators say that the city is hamstrung in its attempts to diversify these schools by a 1971 state law that requires admission be based solely on a single test.
Texas’ state university system addressed a similar problem 20 years ago. Policymakers saw that students of color were underrepresented at the state’s public colleges, and constitutional doctrine prohibited the use of affirmative action in admissions.
So the Texas Legislature passed what became known as the “Top 10% Rule.” The law provided that students who graduated in the top decile of their high school class would be guaranteed admission to state-funded universities.
By most accounts, the law (which was later tweaked) has been successful.
Here is how a Texas-style solution could work for us. Take Stuyvesant as an example. In a compromise proposal, half of its students would be admitted under the current system — taking the top 450 test performers citywide. The other admission slots would be offered to the 14 or 15 top-performing testers from each of the city’s 32 school districts.
New York’s unfortunate patterns of segregation infect the racial, ethnic and class distribution of the city’s school districts. While this problem demands substantial and immediate attention, it presently provides a solution to achieving the diversity we need at the city’s top high schools.
Some critics who cling to the current system may interpret the 1971 state law as prohibiting district-based admission decisions at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech; the law seems to rigidly prescribe the single-test admissions system for those three schools in particular.
John Garvey, a former CUNY dean, made a similar proposal in 2010 and argued the city’s schools chancellor could have the authority to interpret state law to account for school districts. Alternatively, the state Legislature might be receptive to an amendment that keeps the test but builds in more district flexibility.
In any case, there is a strong argument that the city already has the authority to craft a new admissions policy for the five newer specialized high schools (Brooklyn Latin, the High School for Math, Science and Engineering, the High School of American Studies, Queens High School for the Sciences and Staten Island Tech).
And that can be a starting point for diversifying the crown jewels.
It took an unlikely President from Texas to sign the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s. New York City should look to the same state for a way to extend civil rights to our specialized high schools.
Powers represents Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, East Midtown, Midtown West and the Upper East Side in the City Council.