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An SHSAT ricochet: How new admissions policies will backfire

The Chambers Street entrance of Stuyvesant High School.
The Chambers Street entrance of Stuyvesant High School.
photo via Black Youth Project

An argument in a recent New York Post article is on point in asserting that possible changes to New York City’s specialized high school admissions would favor affluent students.

The SHSAT, the acronym for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, has served as the only criterion for middle schoolers to obtain a seat at one of New York City’s most selective public high schools. The New York Post story, as well as the New York Times, indicates that Mayor Bill de Blasio is calling for a more holistic admissions process that will involve evaluating credentials like a student’s leadership skills and community service experience.

Such proposed changes have surfaced in response to a complaint that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed in September 2012 against the U.S. Department of Education. This complaint demands changes to the admissions policies to involve factors besides SHSAT scores. Changing the policies, however, especially in the way that de Blasio has proposed, will not address the LDF’s demands most effectively. This is because such actions would, ironically, polarize the student demographics at the specialized high schools by admitting those students who have resources to develop leadership skills and involvement in service.

Instead, attention should go towards making test preparation resources more accessible to the students who are under enrolled in New York City’s specialized high schools-- those who identify as black or Latino/Latina. Focusing on access to test preparation resources would address the “disparate impact theory”, which, according to the New York Post article, can enable one to label SHSAT admissions policies as indirectly discriminatory because of the racial disparities that are evident in students’ SHSAT scores.

Admitting a student to New York City’s specialized high schools on the basis of extracurricular excellence will socioeconomically polarize their student demographics. Focusing on the accessibility of resources for SHSAT preparation would directly address the test score differences that the Legal Defense Fund pointed out.