Admissions Test For Elite Schools Prompts Complaint

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5:07 p.m. | Updated Claiming not enough black and Latino students are gaining admission to New York City's eight specialized high schools, civil rights advocates on Thursday filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education questioning the use of the specialized high school admissions test (SHSAT) as the sole criterion for entry.

They called the exam a "grave injustice" that contributes to persistent racial disparities.

"It's bad education policy, period," said Jose Perez, associate general counsel and legal director for LatinoJustice PRLDEF. The group, along with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, filed the administrative complaint on behalf of several community advocacy organizations.

"A student can be an 'A' student, spelling bee scholar, have a myriad of community activities and if they do not perform well on this one test, they are denied admission to these elite high schools," said Perez, adding that admission to the specialized high schools also opens up doors to higher education opportunities at elite colleges and universities.

To read the full complaint, click here.

The complaint calls the racial disparities at Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science particularly glaring. Last school year, out of Stuyvesant's 3,300 students, 1.2 percent were black and 2.4 percent were Latino, according to the city's Department of Education. At Bronx Science, which had just over 3,000 students last year, 3.5 percent were black and 7.2 percent Latino.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports the admission policy for the schools, saying passing the test is "done strictly on merit."

"What we've got to do is focus and make sure that everybody has equal opportunity getting as good an education as we can provide before they apply to high school," the mayor said.

In that vein, the city's Department of Education has launched new initiatives to improve diversity, said Deidrea Miller, a D.O.E. spokeswoman. "Last year, more black and Hispanic students were offered a seat in one of our specialized high schools than in the past two years,” she said.

In May, the city launched the DREAM Institute, she said, which helps low-income middle school students with strong academic backgrounds prepare for admission to the specialized high schools starting in sixth grade.

Still, Perez and other civil rights advocates contend that the specialized high school admissions test has "not been properly validated as a fair predictor of student performance," and that the city and state should use multiple measures to select students for elite high schools.

State law, not city policy, sets the requirement that admission to the specialized high schools be based solely on the exam. The complaint argues that this admissions policy violates the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 because "academically talented African-American and Latino students who take the test are denied admission to the Specialized High Schools at rates far higher than those for other racial groups."

The source of this disparity may be rooted in lower income levels for minority families, said Perez, who may not have the resources to prepare for the specialized exam in ways that more affluent families can.

The schools that require admission based on the specialized exam are Bronx High School of Science; The Brooklyn Latin School; Brooklyn Technical High School; High School of American Studies at Lehman College; High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College; Queens High School for the Sciences at York College; Staten Island Technical High School and Stuyvesant High School.