Ah yes, the return of the SHSAT dilemma. Let the same tired yearly dialogue with no lasting change commence.
To add a bit of background to this story, New York City’s top public high schools is a set of nine that admits between 5,000 to 6,000 students total to their schools by utilizing an objective entrance exam called the Specialized High School Admissions Test. I took the exam myself nearly ten years ago along with over 30,000 of my peers. I distinctly remember the gnawing feeling at the pit of my stomach when I arrived at the Bronx High School of Science to take the exam one Saturday morning, unbeknownst to the fact that the row of hunter-green doors that heralded the front entrance would become familiar to me come the next four years.
The SHSAT has come under fire in the past few years for consistently admitting a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic students into the specialized high schools. I can attest to the fact that Bronx Science was overwhelmingly populated with white and Asian students; I can practically count the number of minority (used loosely since Asian is clearly not a minority in this case) students were part of the populace.
In 2012, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took action with a lawsuit that targeted the SHSAT for being racially biased. According to Gothamist.com, “The complaint against the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) that students take to get into the city’s specialized high schools is not a new one. For years there has been public concern about the fact that the test seems to favor certain Asian and white populations over black and Hispanic ones. For example, “of the 967 eighth-grade students offered admission to Stuyvesant for the 2012-13 school year, just 19 (2%) of the students are African American and 32 (3.3%) are Latino.” For context, 70 percent of the city’s public school students are black and Hispanic.”
To no one’s surprise, most people are adamantly against the idea of change for the exam. For one, it is generally agreed that changing the exam’s components and the schools’ admissions criteria will do little to address the problem of lack of diversity within these schools. I agree with this point–a recent study conducted by the Research Alliance for NYC Schools at NYU Steinhardt showed that even while accounting for a different admissions process, such as incorporating grades, test scores and school attendance, would hardly make a dent in increasing the prevalence of minority students. However, what the lawsuit does is shine a light on a problem that has regularly occurred and been ignored for a long time. Because of the consistent excellence of students who attend these schools, the lack of diversity has been ignored. This is not the fault of the students; I know for a fact that many if not most applicants for the exam work extremely hard to perform well on the test, and continue with excellent academic performance throughout high school. It does not mean, however, that the school system is flawless.
Addressing a problem like the lack of diversity in these schools is a conversation where one must walk on eggshells these days–it seems like whenever the topic of minorities is brought up, we hear collective sighs of exasperation and a rousing mantra of the same arguments from proponents and opponents. For current students and alumni of the school, it is normal to feel the need to rush to the aid of the institute that has provided so many opportunities for them. But if we are to be the generation to change our future, we must address the problems in the present that will only worsen with time. Minority representation is not important for the sake of having some color in an underrepresented student body. Black and Hispanic students deserve the same opportunities, and shouldn’t lose out for lack of education during middle school, proper guidance and information, and lack of funding–which, might I add, are all significant contributors as to why they are such a highly underrepresented group in these schools.
It feels so painful to know that this country is so advanced, so powerful, so gifted, and yet this is one of the gripping social issues of today.