The NAACP on Thursday will file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, charging that the exam-only admissions policy for New York City's eight specialized high schools is discriminatory against Black and Hispanic students, is not "educationally sound" and has not been proven to be a reliable predictor of student success at the elite schools. They call for "multiple measures" to be considered for entrance to specialized high schools.
Joined by the LatinoJustice PRLDEF and The Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and other community organizations, the NAACP is challenging the long-standing New York state law which specifies that students are to be admitted to specialized schools on the basis of a single exam. The law gives the city's Department of Education the latitude to create more exam schools and, in the past decade the city added five smaller schools to its roster of specialized schools.
According to the NAACP, the city's Education Department has "never conducted a study to determine whether the test is a valid tool" and whether "there is any relationship between students' test results and learning standards" in those schools. Furthermore, the complaint says that other elite high schools and colleges around the country use "multiple measures" when considering applicants, such as grades, teacher recommendations and the demographics of the schools they attend.
"Schools should admit students that have the most academic merit," said Rachel Kleinman, assistant counsel at the NAACP. "With a multiple measures approach, students who are qualified but can't perform well on a particular test would gain access [to specialized schools]."
The NAACP action comes after concerns about the dwindling number of Black and Hispanic students admitted to specialized high schools. In particular, Stuvesant High School and Bronx Science, historically the most sought-after schools, enroll far fewer Black and Hispanic students than Asians or whites. Last year only 19 of the 967 students gaining admission to Stuyvesant were Black; 32 were Latino. Of the 1020 students accepted by Bronx Science, 32 were Black and 57 were Hispanic. City high school students overall are 17 percent Asian, 39 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black and 13 percent white.
In recent years Black alumni from Stuyvesant, concerned about the low enrollment of African-Americans, formed the Stuyvesant Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, providing a test prep boot camp and an introduction to the school. Some alums say they don't have a problem with the test but that middle schools in many low-income neighborhoods are offering fewer gifted programs and are not doing enough to prepare students for the exam.
"You don't have the same kind of SP [Special Progress or honors] system where you were culling from every neighborhood, giving those students extra attention to pass those tests," said Renee Eubanks, a 1981 graduate of Stuyvesant and a member of its diversity committee. "I don't think the problem is the test. The test is the test. I took it, I passed it. It's hard for me to say the test is somehow biased towards minorities."
The DOE this year expanded its DREAM Specialized High School Institute, a program designed to prepare high-achieving, low-income middle school students for the entrance exam. A pilot program showed some success in increasing the number of successful Black and Latino test-takers in 2012 but a huge gap remains.
"State law requires that admission to specialized high schools be based solely on an exam, and we want all of our students to have opportunities to prepare for the test no matter their zip code," a DOE spokesperson said in a statement.
Certain schools, and even districts, are "feeders" for Stuyvesant, while others send no students at all. According to a 2012 report by the Schott Foundation: A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, in 2009, 10 school districts had no students admitted to Stuyvesant. Sending the most students - 116 -- to Stuyvesant was District 20 in Brooklyn where 38 percent of the students are Asian and only 4 percent are Black. It was followed by District 21 with 109 students, District 2, with 92 and District 26 with 80. The middle schools which send most graduates to Stuyvesants are Mark Twain in District 21, Christa McAuliffe in District 20, and NEST +M in Manhattan. All three are gifted and talented schools.
What happens next? According to the NAACP lawyer, the office of civil rights at the federal education department will investigate the claims. It's unlikely that the action will affect this year's crop of test-takers who sit for the exam in October.
To actually alter the admissions process, Kleinman said, the 1971 state law would need to be changed - or repealed - for the three original schools: Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant. For the schools added later by the DOE, she said, "Our understanding is that the NYC DOE could change the process for at least those five schools without actually changing the law. That would be a nice first small step, but the ultimate goal would be to change the policy altogether."
Read more about the complaint here.