Home > Uncategorized > De Blasio’s Proposal to End Test-Based Admissions Generating Healthy— and Unhealthy Dialogue

De Blasio’s Proposal to End Test-Based Admissions Generating Healthy— and Unhealthy Dialogue

Over the past several days score of articles have appeared regarding NYC Mayor De Blasio’s proposal to end the test-based admissions policy that results in racial and socio-economic imbalances in NYC’s “elite” high schools. The articles range from impassioned pleas to move forward with the plan ASAP to impassioned pleas to maintain the status quo and they range from debates about the innate abilities that cannot be measured by standardized tests to assertions that the tests are crafted in a fashion that assures fairness and assurances that only the best and brightest will be admitted.

To get a sense of the range of debates, I recommend reading Diane Ravitch’s post yesterday titled “What to Do About NYC’s Exam for Admission to Three Elite HSs“. Her post features a lengthy excerpt from a NYPost article written by Danielle Eisenman, a recent graduate of one of the “elite” high schools who is currently enrolled at Harvard, which calls for the elimination of the tests. In the excerpt, Ms. Eisenman writes:

Defenders of the current system, hailing the test as establishing a level playing field, argue that if more black and Latino students truly wanted to attend specialized high schools, they could just study harder. I have repeatedly heard my classmates champion this mindset, implying that black and Latino students are not as hardworking, and, even more disturbingly, not as smart as their Asian counterparts.

“The SHSAT, however, does not measure work ethic or intelligence, but a student’s ability to answer over 100 tedious multiple choice questions in under three hours. It tests for access to tutors and cram schools that teach students the skills they need to answer the questions without thinking.

“I flunked my first practice tests. After a prep class and some tutoring sessions, however, I knew all the tricks. If I hadn’t had access to that class, I likely would not have gotten into Stuy.

“The exam only tests for reading comprehension and math skills — no critical thinking, ambition, creativity or other qualities that predict success at specialized high schools….”

I completely concur with Ms. Eisenman’s thinking, but as I read the comments on Diane Ravitch’s post it was clear that some of her readers did not. Some who were critics of Mr. De Blasio thought a more measured approach was needed while others placed their faith in standardized tests to measure intelligence. Many of the comments included links to articles and references to books that supported their arguments.

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an opinion article by Minh-Ha T. Pham, a scholar of Asian-American studies whose child attends New York City public schools. Asians are among the groups most adamantly opposed to changing the status quo since they are highly over-represented at the “elite” schools. Ms. Pham, though, argues in favor of the mayor’s approach, calling the proposed change “not just a good thing (but also) right thing”. But Ms. Pham realizes her perspective is different from many of her Asian-American colleagues:

Unfortunately, some Asian-American parents in New York are protesting this proposal, arguing that it is anti-Asian because it would decrease the number of Asian children in elite schools. They are on the wrong side of this educational fight.

The mayor’s plan isn’t anti-Asian, it’s anti-racist. It would give working-class parents — including Asian-Americans — who can’t afford and shouldn’t have to find ways to afford expensive test prep programs a fairer chance that their child will be admitted into what’s known as a specialized high school. True, taking a test prep course doesn’t guarantee admission to such a school, but it does offer clear benefits and is widely understood to be essential to test-takers.

Nor is the plan a form of affirmative action. Affirmative-action admission policies — like those in place at some universities — require that race be one part of a host of measures considered. Mr. de Blasio’s plan doesn’t stipulate any racial criterion for admission, much less racial quotas (which the Supreme Court outlawed in 1978). The plan will simply give kids from a wider variety of backgrounds access to a public resource: an excellent public high school education. This is a public resource, something all New York City families contribute to with their taxes. Only about 5 percent of all New York City high school students are enrolled in a specialized high school and last year half of these kids came from just 21 middle schools.

Ms. Pham’s perspective on the mayor’s plan mirrors the one I posted earlier this week: the entire notion of “elite” schools should be called into question. How can there be only 5% of the children in NYC schools who are eligible for the kind of rigorous curriculum offered in the “elite schools”? She writes:

(if the plan is implemented) only five percent of kids are getting access to a valuable public resource. Frankly, Mr. de Blasio’s plan doesn’t fix this problem of inequality. Under his plan, even though the elite high schools would get a bigger range of students, the number of children getting access to this public resource will remain about the same — minuscule.

This is what critics of the plan should be outraged about. All kids deserve a top-rate education in schools with qualified teachers and ample support staff and a wealth of curriculum materials and supplies. All of our schools should be elite schools.

To be against Mr. de Blasio’s proposal is to be against a very limited attempt at giving more kids access to a limited resource. His plan doesn’t add more seats. It just allows more kids a shot at one of those seats — kids whose families can’t afford years of test prep classes and tutors, who live in under-resourced districts, and yet who still manage to excel in their own schools.

I doubt that it would be possible for the mayor to completely eliminate the “elite” schools that are so much a part of the NYC schools’ culture because many of the alumni of those schools would push back as would the pro-charter groups whose arguments for boutique schools would fall by the wayside of every NYC schools was as strong and comprehensive as the schools in, say, Scarsdale. Like Ms. Pham, though, I believe that until all of our schools are elite schools we will continue to see a widening gap between the haves and have-nots in our society.

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