(Bloomberg Opinion) -- New York City is riveted once again by the latest episode in a long-running drama: a dispute over admissions to the city’s most elite public high schools.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to scrap the specialized entrance exams reignited the debate in March, when only seven black students — the lowest number in years — were among the 895 winning a place in the freshman class at Stuyvesant, the city’s most selective public high school.
This is a decades’ old morality tale pitting academic accomplishment — more precisely, the ability of one group of students, lately Asian-Americans, to do exceptionally well on a single standardized test — against fairness, in particular the plight of other minority students who have won ever fewer seats in these schools in recent years. Asian-American students received 66 percent of the offers at Stuyvesant, even though they constitute only about 16 percent of the city’s public-school population, while 22 percent of offers went to white students who constitute about 15 percent of the city’s public schools.
The central drama, however, obscures two important subplots. First, the competition affects only a tiny portion of New York City students; the city’s eight exam high schools enroll barely more than 1 percent of the city’s 1.1 million public-school students. Second, reducing racial imbalances in public schools is not only possible, as other cities have begun to show, it is increasingly as much a political imperative as it is a policy challenge.
Not that the political side of the issue is simple. If it were, de Blasio would presumably have scrapped the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test years ago for the five exam schools he controls. (Application criteria for the other three, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, are controlled by the state legislature.) Indeed, Mohammed Choudhury, an expert on school integration and chief innovation officer at San Antonio Independent School District, argues that the best way for cities to integrate is to start with a few schools.
The mayor opted, instead, to expand test-prep opportunities for low-income students, which failed to solve the integration problem. Now he wants to grant admission to the top 7 percent of all middle schoolers, based on a combination of grades and state test scores, a plan that would require legislative approval.
Similar controversies over the demographics of elite public school have roiled Boston as well. Nationwide, over half the states have selective-admissions schools, with the vast majority concentrated in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Instead of eliminating exam schools, which educate a tiny percentage of students, cities could expand education options for all students. They could also look to Chicago’s selective-admissions process, which gives high-performing disadvantaged students a better chance at winning a spot in the city’s top public schools.
The system for selecting students for Chicago’s 11 selective-enrollment schools grew out of an oft-modified racial desegregation consent decree. Thirty percent of the places at these Chicago schools are reserved for students who receive the highest grades and scores on both middle-school standardized tests and a selective-admissions exam. Most of the rest go to students who were top performers in four socioeconomic tiers. To level the playing field, Chicago analyzes census-tract data for several demographic factors, including income and single-family households, and then divides the city into four tiers, ranging from the most- to the least-disadvantaged sections of the city. (Five percent of admissions are reserved for the discretion of the principal at each school.)
Also, historically, Chicago has notified every student eligible to take the specialized high school test, a large cohort that includes all students who score above the bottom 24th percentile on middle-school standardized tests. By contrast, in Boston and New York, many academically gifted poor students aren’t even aware of the admissions tests.
While the demographics of Chicago’s most selective schools still don’t reflect the school population as a whole, the tiered system has produced more integrated results than those of New York or Boston. Blacks and Hispanics filled 41 percent of Chicago’s most competitive specialized high-school seats in the 2012-2013 school year, while students in the two lowest-income tiers filled 21 percent of those seats. (The same year, 85 percent of Chicago Public School students were black or Latino.)
Defenders of exam schools argue that eliminating tests would effectively destroy schools like Stuyvesant and Boston Latin, and remove a popular, if hard-to-access educational option. They have a point. While most U.S. cities have their share of struggling schools with poor test scores and graduation rates — though struggling schools typically reflect the socioeconomic challenges faced by students in the poorest zip codes — they also have high-quality schools with a range of admissions criteria. The culture of the exam schools is no more self-selecting that that of progressive schools that eschew standardized tests, or than arts-focused institutions. Scrapping the tests at schools like Stuyvesant, whose alumni include former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, author Gary Shteyngart and at least four Nobel laureates, would be akin to eliminating arts portfolios and auditions at arts-centered LaGuardia High School, whose alumni include singer Eartha Kitt, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and actor Al Pacino.
Perhaps most importantly, a number of studies continue to raise questions about whether it’s the quality of the education at elite schools, or of their students, that produce high graduation and college-attendance rates. One study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research looked at the performance of students who earned just-above-the-cutoff scores needed to get into the selective Chicago schools against those who just barely missed the cutoff and went to regular high schools, and found virtually no difference in test scores, grades, or college enrollment. The only exception was for the poorest students who just barely missed the cutoff; those students fared worse academically than their wealthier counterparts who attended regular high schools.
These results suggest that “it’s not a superior education, but a superior peer group” that makes the difference for high-performing students, said Lisa Barrow, one of the authors of the Chicago study and a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Barrow said that students who just missed the specialized high school cutoff probably landed in the “top of the distribution” at less-competitive schools, where they often have access to programs for high achievers such as advanced placement classes or International Baccalaureate diplomas.
This, in turn, suggests the importance of integration not only as a way to end the balkanization of minority students, which keeps them out of elite schools like Stuyvesant. Integration is also the best way to increase overall student performance at non-selective schools.
To contact the author of this story: Andrea Gabor at Andrea.Gabor@baruch.cuny.edu
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at email@example.com
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."
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