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Would eliminating this standardized test increase racial equity in elite NYC schools?

New York City’s elite public high schools are being scrutinized for their admissions practices, which are yielding disproportionately low populations of black and Latino students. In response, the mayor and school chancellor want to eliminate a standardized test critics say is a barrier for low-income and minority applicants. But supporters of the test are pushing back. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There has been much attention about college admissions in the U.S., in light of the recent scandal involving parents.

    But there are real questions as well about equity and diversity in public high schools. That looms especially large in New York City, the largest school district in the country.

    In the second of a two-part report, Hari Sreenivasan delves into the controversy around the city's efforts to eliminate a decades-old test required to get into one of the elite public high schools.

    It's part of our education series, Making the Grade.

  • Man:

    Inference question. What's so annoying about an inference question, guys?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Seventh grade students in Jackson Heights, Queens, are preparing for an exam.

    The Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, is the sole requirement to gain admission to one of the eight such high schools in New York City. This year, Stuyvesant High School, the school with the highest cutoff score, made headlines when, out of the nearly 900 slots that it had available, only seven went to black students.

    So the test has become the center of a fierce debate between academic rigor, equal access, and diversity in the New York's specialized high schools.

    Black and Latino students make up 70 percent of the students in New York City. Yet, this year, they received just over 10 percent of the offers from the eight schools.

  • Woman:

    We are IntegrateNYC.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A group of New York City high school students calling themselves IntegrateNYC is protesting the city's admissions practices. They see the test as a huge barrier for many students who don't have a strong support network or access to certain resources, such as test prep.

  • Jace Valentine:

    It's not balanced, and it's not fair for everybody in general.

  • Matthew Diaz:

    I didn't know anyone that was going to take the test that was fairly on my level or how to study for that test.

  • Leanne Nunes:

    When you look at not only the race of the students that get these seats, but also the financial status of these students, where they have the financial means to afford test prep or other sessions or tutors that other low-income students simply do not.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So it's a matter of access to resources even before you get to the test?

  • Leanne Nunes:

    Yes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A year ago, New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to phase out and eventually eliminate the test.

  • Richard Carranza:

    Thank you for your courageous leadership, Mr. Mayor.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    They proposed replacing it with a system that reserves the majority of spots for the top 7 percent of students from each of the city's middle schools, which would substantially increase the number of black and Hispanic students.

    It's a top performers model, similar to that of the University of Texas system, in which high school students who are in the top 10 percent of their class get automatic admission into one of the state's public universities.

  • Richard Carranza:

    The mechanism by which students have the opportunity to go to these schools is broken.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    New York City Schools Chancellor Carranza believes requiring a test for admission to the specialized high schools sends the wrong message to students.

  • Richard Carranza:

    You have to be prepped for another test that's not aligned to state standards, which you're learning every day, in order to get the opportunity to go to a public school. I just think that's not what public education is about.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    If you went through the eighth grade and did all your homework, you still wouldn't be prepared for the test?

  • Richard Carranza:

    Maybe, maybe not. The test isn't necessarily aligned to the state standards, so it's a tricky test. Five answers for a question, three of them are correct, but one of them is more correct. So it's about learning how to take the test, rather than really testing what you know.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But the proposal to eliminate the SHSAT faces a significant political hurdle: The test is mandated by state law. The only way to eliminate it is to change the law, and that's not an easy task.

  • Protesters:

    Keep the test! Keep the test!

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Asian students have performed especially well on the SHSAT. They make up more than 60 percent of students at the specialized high schools, though they represent only 15 percent of the city's student population.

  • John Liu:

    The Asian community was completely excluded, not inadvertently, but intentionally and deliberately.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    At a community forum in Queens organized by state Senator John Liu, many parents and alumni of the elite schools showed their support for the test.

  • David Lee:

    Taking away the test will marginalize opportunities for thousands of students of all — mostly low-income and mostly immigrant.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And some worried that the proposal is sowing division between the Asian and black and Latino students.

  • Yiatin Chu:

    We need more great STEM schools so that we're not forced to divvy up the 5,000 seats among 80,000 eighth graders, pitting one group against the other.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Supporters of the SHSAT propose other ways to increase diversity, such as expanding accelerated, or gifted and talented, programs at the K-8 level in underrepresented communities.

  • Ivan Khan:

    I'm here today to share some of our best practices with you.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Ivan Khan, an alumnus of Bronx Science High School, one of the highly selective specialized high schools, is pushing for that approach. He's also the CEO of Khan Tutorial, a test prep center that offers classes on how to take the specialized high school exam. It serves mostly children of Bangladeshi immigrants in Queens.

  • Ivan Khan:

    I think the mayor's plan is deeply flawed, and he's not willing to admit the inequity that exists in the K-8 system across New York City, particularly in black, brown and Asian neighborhoods.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So people are going to automatically look at this and say, well, of course, he runs a testing center. He's making money off of that flawed system.

    So how do you fix it?

  • Ivan Khan:

    More so than a test prep owner, I'm a lifelong New Yorker first, and I'm a proud public school product of New York City Public Schools from the late '80s and '90s. I have seen the changes that the city has made to the exam.

    The problem is, an eighth grade class in the Bronx, unfortunately, may be far behind a sixth grade class in a more privileged neighborhood in our public school system.

    I think the first step is to fix the pipeline by ensuring that there are expanded opportunities for accelerated learners from kindergarten, first and second grade.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We met with a group of seventh graders and their parents at Khan Tutorial. The students plan to take the test for the specialized high schools this fall.

  • Nafees Abdullah:

    We want to get into these schools because we want a better opportunity to learn. Like, sometimes, the schools around us, like, they might not have all of the resources needed for us to achieve our goals. For instance, I want to become a software engineer when I grow up.

  • Mina Nakajima-Wu:

    It's not just the education itself. It's the caliber of students and the teachers that you're surrounded by.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What does he need to know that he has to go to tutoring for?

  • Mina Nakajima-Wu:

    I guess to take the test better and just to make sure that they can time-manage better.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But Chancellor Carranza says that the city's own free tutoring program has not improved diversity at the specialized high schools.

  • Richard Carranza:

    I personally went to a fair in the Bronx where we brought the middle school students that would be the top of their class. We did it in Spanish and in English. We gave them materials. We brought the principals of the specialized schools. And the results this year were even worse than last year.

    When you have 70 percent of the 1.1 million students who are black and Latino, those families also want a fair shot. They don't want a guaranteed spot. And, currently, the system's not fair for them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The IntegrateNYC students want to see a diversity plan that goes well beyond the specialized high schools and addresses the more than 70 high schools with tests and other requirements.

  • Leanne Nunes:

    There's other schools that have screens or also interviews and auditions. And even though it's called school choice, oftentimes, the school actually chooses you.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For now, nothing about that system has changed. New York City students will still need to take the SHSAT test to get into the specialized high schools.

    Proposed legislation to eliminate the test has not reached the floor in either the state Assembly or Senate for a vote. In the meantime, the mayor and chancellor have expanded a diversity initiative known as Discovery program to about 13 percent of the specialized high school population.

    The program admits students from disadvantaged backgrounds, attend high-poverty schools, and scored just below the cutoff score on the SHSAT. They plan to expand the program to 20 percent of seats at each specialized high school by next year.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in New York.

  • Correction:

    An earlier version of this transcript incorrectly identified a parent who spoke at a recent community forum in New York. She is Yiatin Chu, not Yaten Chu.

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