Why the NYC specialized high school exam is discriminatory and must be terminated.
The SHSAT, is a tool that bars many of the most marginalized students in NYC.
by Sazia Patel
This fall, 30,000 eighth graders across New York City will take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). The SHSAT, is a tool that bars many of the most marginalized students in NYC, namely Black and latinx, from attending historically high performing schools. It also poses a barrier for those students from gaining access to the resources at these coveted schools: outstanding faculty and specialized curriculums that include many Advanced Placement classes.
This test is the only means to gain admission into New York City’s “elite” Specialized High Schools, making it highly competitive. In fact, less than 20% of the students who take the test will be offered a seat at one of these schools.
Even though across the board there is even racial representation amongst applicants, students of color- specifically Black and latinx students- are underrepresented at these schools. Though they make up 70% of the city’s population, this past school year only 10% of the students accepted into these schools were Black or latinx.
A number of Asian (16% of the city’s school population and 62% of the population of Specialized High Schools) and white community members believe that the test has established an even playing field. For some, the idea to reform this system would be an unfair change. For example, a contingent of Asian families and students, has come together to form an initiative–mainly of low income, first and second generation immigrants–called, Let My People Study, in support of keeping the SHSAT.
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Let My People Study defends the exam and believes that the effort to change the test is directly discriminating against “hardworking” students such as those in its membership and creates unfair advantages for other students. Mayor de Blasio has stated that the reason for changing the test is to reflect the city’s population better and to end a system which systematically excludes students of color from these specialized schools. This group asserts that the issue is the broken K-8 public school education system in the city and not the test itself.
The subject material of the test is not based on the typical middle school curriculum and passing it does not guarantee academic success at these elite schools. Instead, the reality is that students who can afford it, study for two, even three years at costly test prep centers like Kaplan and are guaranteed a higher chance of passing the exam. Everyone else is simply expected to do their best (based on the education they have received to that point). Why more Black and latinx students are not gaining acceptance to these elite schools is complicated: not only do local politics and economics control what should be a free education, but this country continues to perpetuate systems that deny Black and brown people access to a quality education.
New York City has the biggest education system in the United States and it remains heavily segregated, largely preventing Black and latinx students from achieving academic success. We have a system with over a million students and there are major obstacles to distribute resources and opportunities to everyone with equity. Attending a Specialized High School means more than success in one’s academic career, it also increases students’ chances of being admitted to college and onward.
The Specialized High School testing system is only one example of educational inequality. Across the nation from New Jersey to Alabama to Louisiana to Texas, it has been found that on every aspect—from qualified teachers to curriculum offerings—schools serving greater numbers of students of color had significantly fewer resources than schools serving mostly white students. A good education should not be a privilege afforded only to those with the means and it definitely should not correlate to one’s skin color. Additionally, increasing diversity at these schools is not where the work ends. The positive treatment of students of color at these schools and making sure it is a place where they can truly succeed is also necessary.
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When will New York City wake up? Many Black and brown students living in New York City, despite all their intellect and ambitions, find their aspirations capped in the face of the Specialized High School Test.
The problem we have at hand right now is one which is very complex and has roots of injustices in many forms. By abolishing the Specialized High School Test, it would be a step in creating a system which allows all students to reach their full potentials. It would be a step in humanizing our schools and the people in them by making quality education more accessible and not based on one test score. The time is always right to do what is right and the time to finally end this discriminatory test is now.