On Thursday September 27, 2012, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint with the US Department of Education stating that the admissions exam for the eight Specialized High Schools in New York City discriminates against black and Latino students.
The NAACP accused the city of barring Black and Latino students from the specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant High School, where only one percent of students is black. “Black and Latino students don’t see opportunity at places like Stuyvesant because of the admissions process,” said NAACP attorney Rachel Kleinman in a New York Times article. “It’s not fair and it’s bad policy.”
The Association believes the grueling exam is unfair to Black and Latino students because they are denied admission “at rates far higher than other racial groups.” Nearly 31 percent of white students and 35 percent of Asian students who take the test are offered seats at the top schools, compared with just five percent of Black students and 6.7 percent of Latinos.
For years, Black and Latino students have struggled to gain admission to the city’s top institutions. At Stuyvesant, just 1.2 percent of the student body is black, although Black students account for 28 percent of overall enrollment in city schools. Hispanics make up 2.4 percent of Stuyvesant.
The NAACP doesn’t specify how the test discriminates against Blacks and Latinos, but Kleinman said those students might lack tutoring and other resources. Department of Education (DOE) officials pushed back against the NAACP’s complaint, arguing the test is color-blind.
Stuyvesant SPARK Coordinator Angel Colon does not believe that the test itself is the reason for the Black and Latino minorities in these schools. “The information is just not reaching certain communities in time,” Colon said. “For the majority of people, this is not an exam that you can pass solely on your god-given intelligence. You need to prepare, and in some black and Latino communities, there just isn’t enough time.”
The New York City Department of Education created the New York Specialized High School Institute (SHSI), a free program run by the Department for middle school students with high test scores on city-wide tests and solid report card grades. The program’s original intent was to expand the population of African American and Hispanic students in the science high schools by offering them test-taking tips and extra lessons; however, students of any racial or ethnic background can apply for admission to the Institute. As of 2006, 3,781 students are enrolled at 17 locations. Students spend 16 months, starting in the summer after sixth grade, preparing for the test.
This is not the first time that the specialized high schools were deemed “racist” in terms of the students they accept. During the 1960s, a time when the ideal of equality and opportunity gave way to demands for equality of results, there were many protests that demanded “community control” over schools, including the specialized high schools. In 1971 the superintendent of Community School Board Three on Manhattan’s West Side, Alfredo Mathew, charged that the admissions test at the Bronx High School of Science was “culturally biased” and worked to “screen out” black and Puerto Rican students. Mathew’s board demanded that the schools chancellor abolish the admissions test and admit students solely on the basis of recommendations; it threatened a lawsuit if he didn’t. As a result, in 1972, the New York State Legislature passed the Hecht-Calandra Act.
The Hecht-Calandra Act protects the entrance examination as the only factor taken into consideration when it comes to admission to the specialized high schools. It also states that the SHSAT cannot simply be changed. The act calls for a uniform math and science exam for admission into these schools. This act was intended to preserve the Specialized High Schools’ status as special schools that accept students solely based on their scores on the entrance examination.
The U.S. Department of Education will review the complaint and, if needed, work with the city to change policies — a process that will require new state legislation. The DOE’s website states that students are admitted to specialized high schools based on how their SHSAT score ranks among the other test takers’ scores; the order in which they ranked the eight specialized high schools they would like to attend; and the seats available in each school.
The lack of black and Latino students in the student body has been a well-discussed topic at Stuyvesant for some time now. Stuyvesant has an outreach program where Colon and Parent-Coordinator Harvey Blumm visit junior high schools in Black and Latino communities in an effort to inform Junior High School students of the SHSAT, while still allowing them enough time to prepare for the exam. “Harvey and I have been doing this for a long time now. We want them to be aware, and spread the news in their communities,” Colon said. “It’s a matter of information.” Last month, Stuyvesant hosted an Open House designed to inform minority students about the life at Stuyvesant. In years’ past Stuyvesant has held diversity days where professional panels discussed solutions to the racial disparity at the school.
This year, Stuyvesant alumnus and Republican candidate for mayor Tom Allon (’80) expressed his dissent over the specialized admissions process. In an editorial published in the Daily News on Sunday, August 12, he outlined specific changes that he would make to the exam. He endorsed admitting every middle school valedictorian to Stuyvesant and to adding a written component to the SHSAT.
As to whether the quality of Stuyvesant and the other specialized high schools will change if the admissions process is altered, no one is sure. Junior Frances Shapiro said, “I think that the SHSAT is a fair test that truly admits students to specialized high schools who can handle the challenging curricula.”
In an essay posted on his website in response to the NAACP’s claim, English teacher Dr. David Mandler wrote “If the test itself were really designed to screen out black and Latino students, no black and Latino students should be able to score well enough to gain admission into the specialized high schools at all. Clearly, while too few in numbers, black and Latino students do get into specialized high schools [ … ] so, it is not the test itself, per se, that is racially discriminatory.” Dr. Mandler declined further comment.