Refath Bari

Managing Editor, The Paper

42 of CCNY’s 2000 Freshman are from Brooklyn Tech, my Alma Mater (Naviance 2021). Many others hail from the city’s 8 other specialized high schools. For quite some time, I’ve been interested in the mechanics of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and how a meritocratic admissions system could give rise to such un-meritocratic demographics (<10% Blacks & Hispanics, on average) in the Specialized High Schools. Perhaps even more interesting, of the 394 Brooklyn Tech students who applied to CCNY in 2021, 234 were accepted but only 18% enrolled. By understanding the mechanics of this complex system, we can not only make Specialized High Schools more diverse, but make CCNY more attractive to these talented students. 

The SHSAT is an interesting paradox: it’s a meritocratic standardized exam that gives rise to severely skewed demographics. In a utopia, one would expect the demographic distribution of Specialized High School students to be roughly evenly spread out across different ethnicities. But of course, there are many complicating factors, including socioeconomic status (SES), access to tutoring, knowledge that the SHSAT even exists, and more. The lack of diversity in Specialized High Schools may stem primarily from the populations of the middle schools that feed it. It’s a complex cycle that begins at the elementary level, and propagates throughout the education system, affecting over 1.1 million students. This system starts with feeders — middle schools with students who have disproportionately high acceptances to Specialized High Schools, either due to high SES or other factors.

It begins in 6th grade, when parents compete to place their students at the best middle schools, over 37% of which require screened admissions. The most selective of these schools, duly termed feeders, make a majority of the specialized high school offers, and their populations disseminate into that of Specialized High schools. The 5 digits that constitute a child’s zip code also constitute their education — admissions to feeder schools are correlated with higher-income zip codes. As expected, the average black & hispanic population of the top 28 feeders is only 23%, less dramatic than the Specialized High Schools’ 10%, but nonetheless a worrying statistic (Shapiro, Rebecca 2019).

These feeders are much like monopolies: the top 28 of them account for half of specialized school offers. The top 100 feeder schools account for over 85% of specialized school offers. The other 522 middle schools in NYC receive only a marginal 15% of offers, according to the New York Times. I’m from one of those 522 — I graduated from MS 118, a great middle school in the Bronx, albeit one plagued by low acceptance rates to Specialized High Schools. But with nonstop grit, passion, and endless nights spent at the library, I got accepted to Brooklyn Tech — an acceptance that changed my life forever. At Tech, I received many wonderful opportunities, including the chance to take accelerated courses and join student service organizations. 

Feeder schools are the products of a faulty education system in which even meritocratic admissions exams are skewed by the advantage of tutoring granted to rich students. But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to the faulty legislations, flawed policies and rash budget cuts, the Specialized High Schools were reflective of NYC students’ diversity and intellectual capability.

The Specialized High Schools of the ‘90s were much more diverse: Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science had a black and hispanic population of 37.3% and 11.8%, respectively. Middle schools at the time didn’t have a large Asian population, partly because the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act hadn’t been enacted yet. Instead, middle schools used diversity to their advantage by pooling talented students of all ethnicities into Honors classes, a process termed “tracking”. But as lower-performing students became increasingly isolated, tracking fell out of favor and was phased out in the mid ‘90s, exacerbating the impact of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality act. Immediately, Asian populations in Specialized High Schools increased dramatically. But this was only the beginning of the end of diversity in the Specialized High Schools.

By 2001, the legislation of NYC mayor, Rudy Giuliani, had cut the education budget by $2 billion, resulting in underfunded schools lacking the teachers and funding to recruit, tutor, or identify talented students (Newfield, 2017). The economic and intellectual gap between elite and underfunded, zoned middle schools increased in 2004 with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Choice initiative (Taylor, 2017). The School choice initiative enabled parents to send their children to any school in the city, instead of their zoned school. As parents competed to send their children to the best schools around the city, zoned schools became increasingly underfunded and under enrolled. Parents were now essentially tracking their children between schools, in comparison to the previous tracking within schools during the ‘90s. This interschool tracking resulted in elite middle schools with overwhelmingly white & asian populations, and zoned schools with mostly black and hispanic populations. The growth of these underfunded (many of them zoned) middle schools were further stagnated by NYC’s fair funding initiative of 2007. From 2011-2012, the fair funding initiative budget allocation formula caused middle schools serving students below academic standards to receive less funding, effectively stagnating their growth.  

The lack of diversity in Specialized High Schools is the product of a closed cycle, initiated by a series of flawed legislations. It began with the termination of tracking programs in middle school, a decision whose consequences exploded with the passing of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Rudy Giuliani’s $2 billion budget cut, Bill de Blasio’s school choice initiative, and a mismanagement of funds due to the fair funding initiative all contributed to the lack of diversity we now see in Specialized High Schools. The SHSAT is a complex problem, founded on decades of incompetent policy decisions, flawed legislations, and complex historical events. As such, we must approach the solution carefully, taking into consideration the validity of the SHSAT as a meritocratic standardized exam, as well as the screened admissions process of middle schools. The solution can have lasting impacts not only on the demographics of high schools, but also on public colleges such as CCNY. 


Sources:

  1. 2021 Brooklyn Tech Graduation Data from Naviance
  2. Shapiro, Eliza, and Rebecca Lai. “How New York’s Elite Public Schools Lost Their Black and Hispanic Students.” The New York Times, New York Times, 4 June 2019, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/03/nyregion/nyc-public-schools-black-hispanic-students.html.
  3. Newfield, Jack. “The Full Rudy: The Man, the Mayor, the Myth.” The Nation, NYT, 27 Jan. 2017, www.thenation.com/article/archive/full-rudy-man-mayor-myth.
  4. Taylor, Kate. “A Manhattan District Where School Choice Amounts to Segregation.” The New York Times, New York Times, 8 June 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/06/07/nyregion/a-manhattan-district-where-school-choice-amounts-to-segregation.html.