Cover Photo by Adi Talwar for Citylimits.org.
Picture this: throngs of nervous, acne-ridden 13-year-olds, slowly making their way into select high schools all across the city, about to take an exam which they feel will determine their entire future. Spoiler: it won’t. But will it determine where they spend the next four years of their academic lives? These eighth graders are about to take the SHSAT, an exam all of us took in order to get to where we are now.
As the SHSAT was administered this past month, there has once again been a resurgence of complaints concerning whether or not this process is racially discriminatory, the likes of which have been reported for years. Since 2012, accusations of the specialized high school entrance exam being unfairly discriminatory towards black and Latino students have cropped up all throughout the press, from the Economist and the New York Times to local newsletters.
A recent study released by the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at NYU supports the argument that race and socioeconomic status are factors which must be considered during the specialized high school admissions process; and that these elements are currently not. The study found that white, Asian, and more economically advantaged students performed significantly better on the SHSAT.
This exclusion is exhibited in Brooklyn Tech itself. According to records from the Department of Education, our student population is 60.23 percent Asian, 23.22 percent white, and just 7.14 percent Hispanic and 6.33 percent Black. Brooklyn Tech as well as many other Specialized High Schools fail the Department of Education’s own standards for diversity as indicated in Chancellor Fariña’s Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools diversity plan, “Given that black and Hispanic children make up 70% of our students citywide, we consider a school racially representative if black and Hispanic students combined make up at least 50% of the student population.”
Research shows that a large number of black and Latino eighth graders are often not as exposed to the specialized high school process, or given access to adequate preparation. Some feel that this is the fault of the admissions process itself, while others believe that it’s more to do with the middle schools which these children come from.
“The inequities are built into the schools that they’re coming from” says Mr. Joseph Kaelin, our Coordinator of Student Activities. “I don’t think it’s the exam’s fault, it’s the people’s fault.”
Pauline Phan, a Junior at Tech whose younger brother recently took the SHSAT, said, “If they really wanted to, they could go take the test. And if they really wanted to, they could learn what goes into applying for the test, and how to apply for high school, I guess.” She has a similar rationale to Mr. Kaelin’s, firmly believing that “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Contesting the beliefs of people like Ms. Phan and Mr. Kaelin are those who say that the SHSAT and the process in which children are expected to apply to these specialized high schools is to blame.
Sergio Garcia, a Junior at Brooklyn Tech, says, “A lot of people have come here, to this country. And a lot live in single-bedroom apartments. They all have to be together because they have to pay rent.”
Upon hearing Ms. Phan say that the test is technically available to all New York City eighth graders, Garcia asked, “How can their parents help them study or send them somewhere to study? They cannot help [the students themselves] because they are not educated enough.”
Mr. Adam Stevens, an AP U.S. History teacher at Tech, had one comment on the issue, saying “Aside from access to PSAL sports for Black and Latino students, access to specialized high schools for Black and Latino students is the biggest civil rights violation in New York education.”