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BY SYDNEY PEREIRA
As parents and politicians fight over Mayor de Blasio’s plan to scrap the standardized admissions test for this city’s specialized high schools as a way to promote diversity, some recent Stuyvesant High School grads are weighing in.
Most agree that lack of diversity is a problem at their school, and that reforming the admissions system will be necessary to address it, but some suggest that an important first step would be to encourage more minority students to take the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test in the first place.
“I always thought it was ridiculous that my grade has a single number of black students,” said Matteo Wong, Stuyvesant’s 2018 valedictorian, whose graduation speech highlighted the need to diversify his school.
Stuyvesant is around four percent Black or Latino — even though those groups make up a combined 66.5 percent of the city’s public school students — and in his speech, recently published as an op-ed in Crain’s, Wong called that figure “unacceptable.”
“To accept [those statistics] is to buy into a racist myth of Black and Hispanic inferiority that has very real, physical and psychological repercussions,” he said. “To accept these demographics is to make Stuyvesant a toxic environment for Black and Hispanic students.”
Wong stopped short of wholeheartedly endorsing the mayor’s plan, but said something must be done.
“The way forward is unclear,” he added, “but the status quo is broken.”
The mayor proposes a two-stage plan. In September 2019, the city will expand the Discovery Program to set aside 20 percent of specialized high school seats for low-income students who miss the cut-off score for the SHSAT.
Eventually, de Blasio wants to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process selecting students based on their class rank in their middle school and on statewide tests that all middle schoolers take. But that change would require a legislative fix from Albany.
The mayor said expanding the Discovery Program would increase Black and Latino students admitted to elite schools from nine to 16 percent. If the SHSAT were scrapped entirely and admissions relied on class rank and statewide test scores, 45 percent of students would be Latino or Black, he said.
“This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot,” he wrote in an announcement of the proposal on Chalkbeat.
For Maiko Sein, a recent Stuy graduate headed to Cornell University this fall, taking the SHSAT changed her life.
“I am grateful for where I am,” said Sein, who was born in Japan and came to the U.S. in kindergarten. “I’m grateful for the test.”
Still, she said that one high-stakes exam shouldn’t be the only factor determining admission.
“I think there needs to be more than just a test,” Sein said. “I do think that one grade doesn’t determine who you are as a person. But I know so many people that worked extremely hard to be able to do well on that test. My family invested a lot of money so that I could take the test and opportunities could be broadened for me.”
Sein said that more could be done to encourage more students to take the test. She remembers being the only one who took the test on her block in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
But whether or not a student ever takes the SHSAT can depend a lot on what middle school or junior high they go to. At some schools — particularly those with selective admission — test prep is almost universal, according to Joyce Wu, another Stuyvesant grad, who was recently awarded the prestigious Milken Scholarship.
“Prep was very, very rigorous,” said Wu, whose intermediate school, the Christa McAuliffe School, had the highest percentage of students admitted to an elite high school citywide last year. “I remember doing a lot of practice tests. It was classes every day during the summertime, all day long.”
Admission to Christa McAuliffe — which Sien also attended — is selective, based mostly on a student’s grades in 4th grade and scores on state math and English exams. Its student body demographics reflect a similar lack of diversity as the elite high schools, with 67-percent Asian, 26-percent White, and just 7-percent Black or Latino.
Wu said she disagrees with getting rid of the SHSAT entirely, but agreed that expanding the Discovery Program would improve diversity. The real solution, however, would be to address the educational disparities from Pre-K through middle school, she said, and encouraging more participation in the test in under-represented communities.
“People simply don’t know that the SHSAT exists or what specialized high schools are in a lot of communities,” said Wu.
Last year, 34 percent of eighth graders citywide took the SHSAT, according to DOE numbers crunched by the New York Times, but the percentage of students who took the test varied widely between schools. At some schools, largely those with a majority Hispanic and Black students, only a handful took the exam.
But an NYU Steinhardt study on specialized high schools found that even when they took the SHSAT, girls, low-income students, and Latino and Black students were less likely to receive an admission offer — even when they received similar scores to admitted students on the state’s seventh-grade English Language Arts test.
The report, from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, found that guaranteeing admission to the top 10 percent of students from every middle school, as the mayor proposes, would have the largest effect on diversity, but the report also suggested that students who reach a certain score on state exams could be automatically signed up for the SHSAT, and that free test preparation could improve diversity.
But Sein’s experience with free test prep left her skeptical that it could be an effective equalizer. She participated in the DOE’s free DREAM program for low-income middle-schoolers, but when that program seemed inadequate, her parents paid for additional, private test prep at the Angel Advantage Center.
“I didn’t feel that DREAM was preparing me at all for whatever was to come [on the SHSAT],” Sein said. “I was with classmates that did not know how to multiply. That really opened my eyes to how privileged I was.”
She said that if the test stays, programs like DREAM must be expanded and improved.
Kevin Li, another recent grad, said the mayor’s proposal has at least started a conversation about diversity and the admissions process — which he said can be difficult at Stuyvesant because it involves reshaping a system that some students have greatly benefited from.
The proposal “does enough to start a conversation, especially at these high schools, to really talk about and challenge how we can increase diversity at these schools,” Li said.