Streams

Discriminating Test

Monday, October 01, 2012

high school testing students school (Frederick Florin/Getty)

An NAACP lawsuit contends that the path to entry in NYC's elite public high schools is discriminatory. Yasmeen Khan, WNYC associate news producer covering education and politics, discusses the case. 

Further Reading:

→ New York City Handbook Anti-Discrimination Policy (PDF).

→ Read the NAACP Complaint Below

Guests:

Yasmeen Khan
News, weather, Radiolab, Brian Lehrer and more.
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Comments [46]

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Mar. 27 2013 09:28 AM
1989 Alum from New Jersey

1989 Bronx Science graduate here. I took no prep course, grew up in the Bronx, my mother was a secretary, father a construction worker. I got into Bronx Science. I recall there was either a similar suit back in the early 1990s, or at least similar sentiment that the test was biased, etc. and the result was that they made it easier and still, blacks could not get in in the numbers some folks wanted. At some poitn you have to ask yourseves, is it the test, or is it the person taking the test.

Feb. 15 2013 04:12 PM
Tina from Queens

First of all, please be aware that our responses are a convenient sample, far from representative. The majority (69%) of the listener audience are college graduates (at least for NPR, I could not find demographics on WNYC). There will be a disproportionately small amount of Hispanic and Black commentators, the very population that this segment is about.

As for the topic on hand, I graduated from Science in 02. I remember taking the SHSAT - an exam & admissions process where no one received special preference (e.g. donors, or children of alumni). I had prepared for a year and yes, it was very stressful. But so were the many, many rigorous math, science, and standardized tests I had to take afterward. The entrance exam serves as an indicator for the motivation and diligence that it requires to succeed in a specialized high school.

I believe the underlying cause for such racial disparities, as few have pointed out, is a combination of the public school education up to the 8th grade, and just as importantly, the home & cultural lives of the children. Also, the knowledge of and encouragement to attempt the exam. This is a key difference. I may not have performed well, if it weren't for the encouragement (threats?) of my parents. They may have wanted me to attend more than I did. Your segment mentioned "low income", but I don't think it matter as much as the factors I mentioned. I'd bet that if you'd ask the Asian population at the schools now, a majority would be from low income immigrant families.

Oct. 01 2012 07:16 PM
Tina from Queens

First of all, please be aware that our responses are a convenient sample, far from representative. The majority (69%) of the listener audience are college graduates (at least for NPR, I could not find demographics on WNYC). There will be a disproportionately small amount of Hispanic and Black commentators, the very population that this segment is about.

As for the topic on hand, I graduated from Science in 02. I remember taking the SHSAT - an exam & admissions process where no one received special preference (e.g. donors, or children of alumni). I had prepared for a year and yes, it was very stressful. But so were the many, many rigorous math, science, and standardized tests I had to take afterward. The entrance exam serves as an indicator for the motivation and diligence that it requires to succeed in a specialized high school.

I believe the underlying cause for such racial disparities, as few have pointed out, is a combination of the public school education up to the 8th grade, and just as importantly, the home & cultural lives of the children. Also, the knowledge of and encouragement to attempt the exam. This is a key difference. I may not have performed well, if it weren't for the encouragement (threats?) of my parents. They may have wanted me to attend more than I did. Your segment mentioned "low income", but I don't think it matter as much as the factors I mentioned. I'd bet that if you'd ask the Asian population at the schools now, a majority would be from low income immigrant families.

Oct. 01 2012 07:15 PM
Artjom Plaunov from New York

I attend one of the specialized high schools and when I took the test I found it to be very objective. I think any claims of bias should be directed to underlying problems. Changing the admission process to 8 schools wont change the ridiculously high dropout rate in the city.

Oct. 01 2012 07:02 PM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

The tests do discriminate.

They discriminate intelligence from ignorance by testing mastery of math and language skills.

Oct. 01 2012 04:59 PM
Galen Simmons from New York, NY

BxSci alumnus 2004. I read through the complaint, and it actually sounds to me as though there might be some grounds to challenge the purely test-based system. Some of the citations in the complaint are a bit of a stretch, but there is a strong core argument that follows: 1) the board of ed hasn't established through any studies that a test based admission is better for its mission than alternatives and 2) that the board of ed hasn't established that the SHSAT measures mastery of the curriculum offered in NY middle schools. I'm a strong believer in equal opportunity. While I can understand that a place like Bronx Science may never achieve a student body that fully reflects city demographics, I don't think that the correct way to approach the issue is to completely write-off the idea that the system might be improved. Although I like the simplicity that a test offers, if that test hasn't even been verified to correlate to academic potential, then I'm worried that the schools themselves may not be living up to their own ideals.

Oct. 01 2012 03:23 PM

The tests aren't biased against class and race... they're biased towards the combination of high intelligence, education, achievement.

The disparate outcomes for the tests result from the foundational problems which exist for elementary and middle school education in New York - including English as a second language. That includes test prep.

So, this lawsuit about the test misses the point. The disparate results are a symptom of the larger problem with public education.

Oct. 01 2012 02:44 PM
Kim from NY

Any test or assessment of a student's skills is going to be at least somewhat discriminatory. My feeling is that the test is as unbiased as it can be - the schools, which are mostly science- and math-focused, need the kids to have a solid base of knowledge in math and verbal reasoning. If anything is discriminatory in this whole process, it is that black and Hispanic kids lag academically for a whole constellation of reasons - first and foremost being poverty, but also cultural values. If a family truly values education, their kids will get what they need. The family will read, read, read, and in doing so will expose the child to a variety of ideas and information that they otherwise would not encounter (even from daily school attendance!). You don't have to be white or rich to read. Our society needs to focus on eliminating poverty by reaching out to those less fortunate, and helping to boost them up. Teach them skills and take them into the folds of our society. That's how the playing field gets leveled, not by dumbing down a test.

Oct. 01 2012 02:38 PM
Harlemite

Turn off the boom-boom and pick up a book. Less music and TV; more books.

I grew up DIRT POOR in a low-rent housing project in Brooklyn. Yet I always super well on tests. Why? I was a reader. Why was I a reader? Because I saw my mother read.

All the programs, all the money, all the teachers, all the bells and whistles; none of it will help any kid who does not read. And kid will never read if they never see a parent pick up a book, a magazine, a newspaper.

If you don't have a deep reading background, the vast majority of tests you take over your lifetime will be "discriminatory."

Oct. 01 2012 01:56 PM
bob from SI

My son attends SI Tech. He has an adept mind which can process logic problems very easily but he is not an excellent student. He has constantly maintained an 85 average through out school. If they changed the entrance exam to the way they used to do it with your 7th and 8th grade marks he would not have made SI Tech. Plus if you change the entrance requirements to include a more holistic approach including grades what do you do when you have a teacher who will remove points from a test for not following instructions and having another teacher who gives bonus points for attending after school activities. Grades are not a good indicator across the school system because there is no standardization for grading among teachers. Plus SI Tech had a holistic approach before 2005 and minorities were still under-represented. So even if the NAACP does get relief the results will still be the same.

Oct. 01 2012 11:17 AM
Anthony from Brooklyn

I went to Tech in the late 90s. I'm black and from a low-income background. I didn't have test prep and went to a standard neighborhood middle school. The most important factor was having access to information. In seventh grade our teachers began telling us about the HS admissions process and the SHSAT. Had I not known about those schools and the exam, I wouldn't have ever gone to Tech.

One obstacle is that "information networks" in some Asian communities are stronger than those that exist in black and Latino communities when it comes to this subject, which explains way Asians are disportionately overrepresented. Another obstacle, in my opinion, is the math and science focus. I think the idea of being math & science focused a) intimidates many youth (and their parents) who may find the subjects challenging and b) imagining a career in STEM field is not a tangible one. Students don't really know what engineers do, they've never met an architect, or known a doctor personally. The idea just seems less achievable.

Oct. 01 2012 11:09 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Well said Karen....

Oct. 01 2012 11:03 AM
Cheryl from Bermuda

I am a Black woman who graduated from Bronx Science in 1979. I took the test, passed and attended. I met the smartest most diverse group of people I have ever met in my life at Science. However, while I never took a prep course or studied for the test, I was prepared for the test in elementary and middle school. I think the under representation of Blacks and Hispanics today is an indication of the failure of our elementary and middle schools to prepare students, before we even get to counseling. In the 1970s, the demographics of the school represented for the most part the population of New York City.

Oct. 01 2012 10:56 AM
Debbie from New York, United States

Bronx Science Class of 1989 here. I did not take a test prep class. I walked into that room with number 2 pencils. The preparation I received was the excellent public education I received from my elementary school in Briarwood Queens and then a JHS in Forest Hills. My class was diverse. At the time, the school also offered a summer program for folks who were on the "bubble" in terms of the score on the exam. At a minimum, a student at Bronx Science should not require remedial math classes. Recommendations and grades in lower basic math will not prepare them for the level of math and science that is taught at Bronx Science. It is not the job of a specialized high school to educate basic skills. The problem rests with the public education system which is not created equal. The quality of education received by children varies based on location. Even a typical school will track its students to determine level. They will not put a student in an advanced algebra class if they have not learned the basics of algebra. They will not put a student in basic algebra if they have not successfully grasped the concepts of basic mathematics. If a student is allowed to take advanced math prior to the test, there is no reason for them to score poorly. Math is blind. There is only one answer to the question posed. If you do not know the method to achieve that answer, it is simply because you did not learn how to arrive at the conclusion. Again, it points to the inequity of public education system. Recommendations and grades would not indicate ability to take the advanced classes given at Bronx Science. Again, it is not the job of a specialized high school to teach the basic skills that should have been taught earlier in life had the public education system done its job properly at the start. However, this brings the real issue to the forefront - the inequity of the quality of education in the public school system. I believe that students would be better served across the board if this is the issue that was addressed.

Oct. 01 2012 10:53 AM

I remember the Specialized HS test well, even though I took it over 20 years ago.

The test is not discriminatory. Whoever gets the highest scores gets into the specialized schools. There have always been low percentages of Blacks & latinos that attended the top schools, but the difference today is that the specialized HS demographic is now predominantly asian, not white. Stuyvesant HS is now over 70% Asian.

So many Asian kids are now getting into those high schools because they rigorously study for the exam - even if their junior high school curriculum doesn't cover the material needed to pass. They buy the test prep book and memorize everything.

Oct. 01 2012 10:50 AM
John from NYC

The ONE THING that works in the NYC school system is these few elite schools. SHOULD WE ADD MORE OF THEM????? NOOOOOO!!!!!!! LET'S DESTROY THEM.

From the WNYC edu site:

ON WNYC SEP 27, 2:07 PM
Author: Let's Do More For Top Students
By SCHOOLBOOK
Chester Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education and co-author of "Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective High Schools," says he wishes more could be done for the country's brightest students before they hit the ninth grade. READ MORE »

NO -- LET'S DO LESS !!!

Oct. 01 2012 10:48 AM

The Stuyvesant student, Nayeem Ahsan, who was caught cheating started taking prep classes for the Specialized High School Admissions Test the summer before 7th grade. But when he got to the school, he discovered that "the schoolwork was more difficult than he expected". So the prepping got him in but then he couldn't deliver.

Oct. 01 2012 10:45 AM
Jim

For those that think a single test is a poor way to judge (perhaps it is)... if so, why would you even want your kids to go to such an unenlightened place?

Oct. 01 2012 10:45 AM
PD

Most middle schools do not cover much of the material in the test!! esp. higher level math - much less prepare for the test. This is why so many kids do test prep. Yes, it's possible to score well enough without test prep, provided you are in a rigourous middle school that is covering higher level math that is covered on test. The problem not being discussed is the disparity in our city middle schools curriculum/rigor. Having been through the high school process twice, at least the test is the most transparent means of high school admission. Those of you who have been thru this process will know what I am talking about!

Oct. 01 2012 10:45 AM
Leo from queens

The problem is that administrators are not letting most minority kids know about the exams and the existence of these schools. As a result, most qualified kids don'teven know that they can apply or that these schools exist.
Because most the parents are too overwhelmed and are not aware of the opportunities available and there is no real incentive to help these kids.

Also, since Bloomberg has been trying to reinvent the wheel, why not try to replicate what is being done at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science at the neighborhood level so we can provide more opprtunities to more kids.

Oct. 01 2012 10:44 AM
Clement from NJ

I suspect this is a manifestation of cultural focus. I wonder what percentage of the students are of immigrant background.

Oct. 01 2012 10:41 AM
Karen from NYC

How many black and Hispanic kids are getting into Hunter? Like Stuy, Hunter students are chosen based on tests. If you don't score in the 99th percentile, you're not even considered for admission. Moreover, the odds today are that Asian students, who are much better prepared than white, black or Hispanic kids, will score higher on admission tests.

The tests are fair. The issue is preparation. If culture and education prepare more black and Hispanic kids for Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, more will be admitted. The public schools are not doing a good enough job, and talented students need tutoring to pass the test.

Dumbing down Stuyvesant would be a tragedy. Admission at Harvard and Yale is not comparable, because those kids have a range of skills and abilities, and admissions include kids who are not going to major in science or math: as far as I know, there is no affirmative action in the Harvard physics department.

Dumbing down the test would be a huge error.

Oct. 01 2012 10:41 AM
Ben from Westchester

This is a ridiculous issue for many reasons.

First, I went to Bronx Science back when (nobody got test prep and) Science was more diverse than any Benetton Ad. The education and culture there BENEFITS tremendously from being solely merit based, with entry based only on an exam.

Second, the challenge itself is racist -- Bronx Science is STILL tremendously diverse. Whites are less than 30% and the figure "65% Asian," which sounds monolithic, represents Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Korean, Mainland Chinese, Hong Kong Cantonese Chinese, Japanese, and more. The NAACP is favoring blacks and Hispanics and ignoring the racially diverse crowd that uses Bronx Science as a stepping stone to a better life for their high-achieving kids.

The issue is clearly in primary schools in lower income neighborhoods and has nothing to do with the SHSAT exam.

Oct. 01 2012 10:40 AM
Katharine Mukherji from Brooklyn

The middle schools do not cover all of the curriculum on the test before the applicants take it. Those who are in extra tutoring can enhance their chances by studying material that they will learn months later in school.

Oct. 01 2012 10:40 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

And what has been the trend over the same decades of Asian students? Did they not face the same "discrimination"?

But Asian students aside, are we saying that discrimination is worse in 2012 than in the 1970's??

Perhaps it is changing cultural aspects in some of those minorities communities that is working against the children of those communities... the ever-increasing idolizing of celebrity, whether it is show biz or sports.

Bill Cosby talked about the behavior of young black kids, the underwear showing, the trash talking, the anti-education values that seem to have gotten "worse" rather than being mitigated along with the improvement in civil rights.

But I do acknowledge the test-prep mentality of upper-income families give their kids an advantage not available to lower economic students.

It's complicated.

Oct. 01 2012 10:40 AM
Nora from Brooklyn

This is going to sound like another huge generalization, but certain Asian cultures (those influenced by Confucianism) have focused on tests for a very long time--culturally, testing makes a great deal of sense to those families. American parents tend to focus on the "well-rounded."

Oct. 01 2012 10:40 AM
Su

I went to stuyvesant in the late 80s. I was aware of racial makeup at the time. My estimate was that black and hispanic students made up about 10% of the student population. Of the rest, about half were white like me, half asian. It does seem disgraceful that there are only 2% black and hispanic students now. I thought 10% was bad enough!

Oct. 01 2012 10:40 AM
Jade

Where's my comment?

Oct. 01 2012 10:39 AM
Bill from ny

No matter how you change the test the current generation of imagrants (espeially those who are bilingral) will be over represented. They work much harder and the second language gives them an intelligence edge.

Oct. 01 2012 10:39 AM
Leon from new york

How do you make a math test discriminating? My child spent the whole summer prior to the test studying.

Oct. 01 2012 10:39 AM

And how many black and latino students are taking this test

Oct. 01 2012 10:39 AM
Maria from Morningside Hts.

The real discrimination happens in elementary school, where the Bloomberg/Klein adm. has visited the totally inadequate "Everyday Math" program, and equally inadequate "balanced literacy" program on most city schools for the past ten years.

How can those students compete if they never learned proper math or reading skills in the first place?

Oct. 01 2012 10:39 AM
Jennyfer from Prospect Heights

I am a private tutor in Brooklyn and Manhattan who does work pro bono for lower income students, who are predominantly black and Latino, as well as higher income students, who are predominantly white or Asian. The problem as I see it is that by the time the students reach the 8th grade, when the SSHSAT test is administered, the cumulative differences between the higher income students education and the lower students' education is enormous, and in many cases even with test prep, the lower income students simply are not ready for the material on this test. And if the students are not ready for the material on the test, which is general reading comprehension and math skills, then in fairness they are probably not ready for the rigorous curriculum of the competitive science high schools. The real issue is getting lower income a quality education comparable to that of the higher income students.

Oct. 01 2012 10:38 AM
Robert from NYC

You make it sound like all kids are "stupider" these days!!! Well, the Mayor is stupider these days. This guy knows how to make money and sei gesund but he's stupid otherwise. Seems lots of money makers are otherwise "dumb"!! Notice that? Romney, Bush, pick someone.

Oct. 01 2012 10:38 AM
Jade

Brian - Do you know what HCHS was doing when your son was there? When I was there, they did have a "summer school" and support program for some "disadvantaged" kids from their cachement area (i.e. Manhattan). It was on a very individual basis, I believe, including recommendations from teachers to look at circumstances that might've impacted a kids' outcome.

Oct. 01 2012 10:38 AM
Alison from Manhattan

This admissions test is ridiculous - we are a "middle class white family" on the UES EVERYONE tutors their kid in this neighborhood - the test shows who can afford tutoring for their kid - the DOE offers tutoring for lower income kids - which is also unfair. My kid wasn't tutored and missed the acceptance by only a few points - had she been tutored she most likely would have gotten in (we can't afford it and I felt if she couldn't get in on her own she shouldn't!). This system is absolutely ridiculous!

Oct. 01 2012 10:37 AM
Reason

Maybe the complaining students should study harder and score higher on the entrance exam? We could satisfy the left by calling the effort "equal opportunity reform."

Oct. 01 2012 10:36 AM
Greg from Manhattan

Just a clarification... it is the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, not the NAACP.

Oct. 01 2012 10:30 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

John, at that level you are not talking about dopey kids with "poor grades" and irresponsible parents vs smart students with perfect parents.

I'm pretty sure the sample are kids who score in the 97 percentile. If you were to try and get into Brooklyn Tech in the hyper, test prep world of today - you probably would not and I would not make judgments on the competence of you or your parents.

I disagree with the NAACP that this is about race. This is about class, culture and opportunity. For billionaire Bloomy to callously say that "life isn't fair" showed again - the man's arrogance.

Oct. 01 2012 10:23 AM
john from office

How about parents parenting their kids. Turn off the Rap, the TV and all the nonsense. Will the proposed test questions include who Jay Z married and the name of their child??.

The claim of racisim is an insult in itself. The NAACP is saying the test is too hard for certain people, that is the whole idea of an elite school.

Oct. 01 2012 10:04 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

John and Mark, I agree with you to a point. I'm always wary of saying tests are discriminatory, whether it's for the fire dept or a high school -either you are good enough or you aren't. Tests should never be "dumbed down" for "diversity"

However, basing admission to these schools on just ONE test - something only a handful of "elite" schools do, is a bit silly.

You aren't necessarily going to get the brightest students, just the best prepared, and those tend to be kids with "tiger" parents or ones who can afford extra tutoring.

Stuyvesant's recent cheating scandal is evidence that the ends justify the means for many at that school.

Oct. 01 2012 10:00 AM
halloran

Hey Martin C.,

How is it that with all these supposedly "liberal" outrages against self-reliance and common sense -- which nonetheless make us the least "socialistic" industrial democracy in the world, and with the weakest welfare state -- we've got poverty and infant mortality rates which resemble those of a Third World country, and our over-pampered "minorities" have declining life expectancies? Unlike, that is, socialist Europe.

And if you're right, and all the dastardly socialist American liberals, who would be right of center in other countries, are wrong, why is U.S. quality of life so much worse than it is in Europe? And bro, spare me the examples of Greece and Spain. If Florida, Nevada and Mississippi were in the Eurozone, and had to balance their budgets without Federal help (i.e., tax revenues from hated socialist blue states) they'd be in same position, or worse.

Oct. 01 2012 09:58 AM
Martin Chuzzlwit from Manhattan

What nonsense....and what better proof of what a SCAM affirmative action has become? (beyond the question of what advantage you should be given if you (really) are 1/32 Cherokee and why)

This long ago stopped being about EQUAL OPPORTUNITY and became an another entitlement of guaranteed equal results.

Oct. 01 2012 09:39 AM
john from office

As a hispanic, who got into Brooklyn tech in the 70's with the test at that time, I say leave these schools alone. The answer is to fix the parenting going on with those who are not getting into these schools. The truth, and no one will say it, is that the parents of those with poor grades, don't care as much as other parents. If the parents are involved and pushing the kids to study and do their homework the system works.

We have whole cities now that are failing their students and no one will balme the parents. It comes down to parenting.

Oct. 01 2012 08:26 AM
Mark

I always wanted to see which questions are "discriminatory" on allegedly racist tests? I'm not saying it's not possible I'd just love to know what's a "racist question". When the Hartford FD was sued for discrimination due to a racist test I was waiting to see an example of a racist question that a white or asian person can answer but a black or latin person can't. If such a question really exists wouldn't it be a good idea to publish them openly so people know to avoid putting those kind of questions on tests in the future?

Oct. 01 2012 08:13 AM

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