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Playing Politics with NYC’s Magnet Schools

Eight of the specialized public high schools in New York City, including Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech, rely on a standardized admissions exam. Mayor Bill de Blasio said during his campaign that this system, although it treats every student the same, is unfair, because it does not allow a sufficient number of minority candidates to prevail. This year, just 8 black students and 21 Latino students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School (disclosure: I attended Stuyvesant in the 1980s), leading de Blasio to repeat his claim that admission should be based on a range of factors, including recommendations and grades. Blacks and Hispanics, who make up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth grade class, make up only about 12 percent of the group of students admitted to the elite schools that use the exam.

To judge the controversy, it is worth reading this New York Times story from last year, which observes that at least one minority has enjoyed great success on the admissions exam: 72 percent of Stuyvesant’s students at that time were Asian. The story begins with Ting Shi, who, for his first two years in the States, “slept in a bunk bed in the same room with his grandparents and a cousin in Chinatown.” Because his parents worked 12-hour shifts, he “saw them only on Sundays.” After two years of test prep, including after-school and summer classes, Ting scored well enough on the exam to get into Stuyvesant.

The public magnet schools have been a means for non-affluent families to get an education on par with the education they would receive at a first-rate private school. You would think that people on the left would view the success of Asians in the system as a sign of the triumph of merit over racial and, in many cases, economic privilege. But Asians are the wrong kind of minority, and their success, far from meriting celebration, apparently needs to be rolled back.

It must be acknowledged that, although the city has made free test prep available and is engaged in outreach efforts, children in better school systems on average have a better chance of scoring well on the test. Children in “lower-income families have less access to high-quality elementary and middle schools.” But this argument proves too much. Since the quality of one’s elementary and middle school education presumably has something to do with one’s preparation for high school, the claim that standardized tests are imperfect indicators of merit, which is true enough, is a front for a call to lower admissions standards. Any standard that fails to admit a sufficient number of blacks and Hispanics will be denounced as, in the words of Lazar Treschan of the Community Service Society of New York, “academic apartheid.”

To see that this complaint–that the tests don’t really measure merit–is a front, one has only to imagine what would follow if New York took the route of considering recommendations in admissions, which, incidentally, would mean that someone would have to be paid to read all those recommendations. It seems likely that this standard would benefit children in affluent school districts whose parents will push for such recommendations and whose teachers will have more time and resources to devote to identifying and helping promising students. If, after adopting this more expensive admissions system, we found that no more or only a few more black and Hispanic students were admitted, a new measure of merit would have to be found. The sole guide to whether or not a system is gauging merit, for those who object to the admissions exams, is whether an unspecified target number of blacks and Hispanics are admitted.

Asian parents and students compelled to defend the tests have been “puzzled about having to defend a process they viewed as a vital steppingstone for immigrants. And more than a few see the criticism of the test as an attack on their cultures.” While one should hesitate to characterize “Asian culture,” there is no question that attitudes toward test taking play a role in this debate. Students interviewed by the Times asserted that “rigorous testing was generally an accepted practice in their home countries.” In contrast, those who object to the exams on “philosophical grounds” argue that “you shouldn’t have to prep Sunday to Sunday, to get into a good high school.”

Although I agree that deploying so much industriousness to pass a standardized exam is not the best possible use of an eighth graders’s time, I suspect that this time is better used than that of parents and children struggling to game the more holistic standards used for admission to private schools. However that may be, once we concede what seems undeniably true: that children are not responsible for the families they were born into or the school districts in which they happen to reside, we also have to acknowledge what attempting to rectify that unfairness at the level of admissions standards requires: not developing a new merit system, but doing away with merit systems altogether.

State Assemblyman Karim Camara, a Democrat from Brooklyn, plans to introduce legislation that would give the city power to change the admissions criteria for the specialized schools (the admissions criteria for three of the schools are fixed by state law) and “specify what other admissions criteria should be used.” This move, which affects only the small percentage of New York City’s students who attend public magnets and seeks to replace a system that has worked for students like Ting Shi, is unlikely to improve New York City’s school system in any way. But it is certainly, as Mayor de Blasio has shown, good politics.



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