The admissions test for New York City’s eight elite high schools is one of the most divisive issues in city education politics and most of the prominent Democratic mayoral candidates are avoiding a clear position.
While the high-stakes, Specialized High Schools Admissions Test only affects about 30,000 of the city’s 1 million students each year, it has become a symbol of the pervasive segregation in city schools: Only 470 Black and Hispanic students were admitted to the schools last year, in contrast with 2,305 Asian students and 1,072 white students. Black and Hispanic students make up about 70 percent of the city’s public school population.
But attempts in recent years to scrap the test have been met with impassioned and well-organized opposition. Test supporters say changing admissions metrics would dilute the academic quality of the schools — attendance at which can virtually guarantee good college placement. Opponents say the test puts Black and brown kids at a disadvantage — another in a long line of inequities the students face in their schooling.
Mayoral hopefuls are facing pressure from advocates to clearly indicate how they will reform admissions at the city’s specialized high schools, along with the larger issue of using high-stakes tests to place students in high-performing schools.
So far only three of the ten or so prominent candidates have said they would be willing to scrap the high school test.
Former South Bronx nonprofit CEO Dianne Morales — a graduate of Stuyvesant High School, one of the elite eight — said she would eliminate the SHSAT. She was also among the first mayoral candidates to call for abolishing middle school screens permanently.
“I think we need to create quality schools that are accessible universally to all youth and eliminate all of the barriers to access to quality education experiences,” Morales said at a recent candidate forum. “We’ve got to prioritize making that something that becomes available to every public school student across the city no matter what community or what zip code that they live in.”
Council Member Carlos Menchaca also said he supports scrapping the test, but like Morales, said the work of desegregating city schools goes much deeper than a single test.
“We can’t just remove the screens,” Menchaca said. “We have to also remove the barriers of resources they need to get into these schools and that’s what I will be fighting for.”
Comptroller Scott Stringer called for replacing the SHSAT with the seventh grade tests in math and English — on the grounds that they reward classroom learning — as well as eliminating geographic screens that place students according to neighborhood.
“I respect parents who do everything they can to get their kids into a specialized high school, our immigrant families … I honor their children, but I cannot continue to support the SHSAT test when we have no Black and brown kids getting into the specialized schools,” Stringer said at a recent education forum hosted by the city’s principals union. “That’s gonna stop when I’m mayor.”
Stringer was previously noncommittal on the issue. In December 2019, his spokesperson told POLITICO he wants the city to make changes at the five schools including pilots to replace SHSAT with the seventh grade tests and assigning some seats to top performers citywide or some top performers in all middle schools.
For the rest of the field, the question gets more murky.
In 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio floated a plan to eliminate the test and have a new admissions process where the top 7 percent of students at every middle school receive spots at the schools. Those in favor of keeping the test feared a decline in academic quality and discrimination against Asian students, who make up the bulk of the students at the schools.
De Blasio pushed for a repeal of the Hecht-Calandra Act, a 1971 state law that mandates the admissions test at three of the eight schools: Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School. But five of the schools are under the city’s purview and not subject to the state law: Staten Island Technical High School, Queens High School for the Sciences, the Brooklyn Latin School, the High School of American Studies and the High School for Math, Science and Engineering.
Admissions reform advocates have called on the city to change the process at those five. De Blasio wanted a clean sweep of all eight schools, rather than create different processes for different schools and pushed for a repeal of the law in Albany.
The move backfired. An opposition group, the Education Equity Campaign, was formed with funding from cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, a graduate of Bronx Science, and former Time Warner chairman and CEO Dick Parsons. Kirsten John Foy, a prominent Black civic leader, headed the effort. Asian advocacy groups accused the city of disenfranchising students who had worked hard to master the test.
Despite an effort by Albany lawmakers to push the city’s plan through, most lawmakers either opposed the measure or quickly backed away from the issue and the mayor was forced to retreat, acknowledging he mishandled the situation.The fight left both sides unhappy and the schools are still admitting disproportionately more Asian and white students than Black and Hispanic ones.
So mayoral candidates intent on pleasing as wide a swath of voters as possible are walking a fine line.
Shaun Donovan and Andrew Yang said they don’t see scrapping the test as a solution.
Donovan, a former Obama and Bloomberg housing official, doesn’t support scrapping SHSAT but says he’d back revising it. He also said earlier this month that he supports repealing Hecht-Calandra.
But at a recent forum hosted by Columbia and NYU Law School’s Law and Policy Societies, he said, “I believe that we can take that on, modify the test and … if we don’t get results, get rid of it.”
In 2019, Yang, then a presidential candidate, said the SHSAT should not be the only requirement for admission to the schools. But in an interview with the World Journal in December, he said he would support keeping the test.
Yang is calling for at least two specialized high schools in each borough and an admissions process that combines students’ SHSAT performance with other criteria like grades, interviews and essays, according to his campaign website.
“I believe we’ve been failing so many of New York’s school children for years and decades even generations but if you get rid of these tests and screens, it will make you feel better but it does not undo the failure in a meaningful way,” he said. “All it does is it removes a clear marker that shows you that you’ve been failing people of color and children who are not properly prepared.”
Another candidate, Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former de Blasio official, has been vocal on some school integration issues but has not clearly indicated her stance on the specialized test.
Wiley co-chaired de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group, which called for scrapping “exclusionary” middle school admissions screens such as attendance and test scores. The group also recommended phasing out gifted and talented programs and instead putting in place “non-selective magnet schools” based on student needs and interests.
When asked earlier this month about keeping SHSAT, she said she stood by SDAG’s recommendations — but the group explicitly did not weigh in on the test.
She said she also supports a state repeal of Hecht-Calandra.
“We cannot have admissions practices that have nothing to do with the learning abilities or needs of our kids, that are frankly just testing how much income parents have and for low-income parents who are scraping it together instead of doing other things with their limited dollars,” she said.
Ray McGuire, a former Wall Street executive has been reticent to weigh in on the test.
“I don’t want to get so distracted by specialized high schools,” he said. “We’ve got a million and one students in the city. The system is working, it’s just not working for black and brown kids. I would rather not exploit it.”
But in response to a policy questionnaire by POLITICO, McGuire’s campaign said he doesn’t support a test being the sole criterion for admissions and would include grades, recommendations, essays, and extracurricular activities, which together creates a more meaningful assessment of every student.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams initially supported the mayor’s plan to scrap the test when he first launched it but changed his position which, according to a story in the New York Post, came on the heels of opposition from donors.
The Adams campaign denied the veracity of the Post story Thursday night and pointed to remarks Adams made at the time, saying, “It is the voices of concerned parents and educators that have moved me, not financial considerations as baseless tabloid rumors suggested.”
“You’re talking about reimagining education and your conversation is merely talking about the three classist, three schools that the state controls and five that the city controls,” Adams said at a recent forum. “That is not reimagining education.”
Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner, has also expressed support for repealing Hecht-Calandra but has not indicated whether she would scrap SHSAT. On her website, she calls for building new schools for eighth graders in the top 10 percent of every middle school.