On Friday, Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams testified before the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Education regarding New York City’s specialized high schools, and specifically the Specialized High School Standardized Admissions Test.
Also called the “Elite Eight,” the city’s specialized high schools rank among the nation’s most competitive and demanding institutions and admit students based solely on their Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) scores. But these schools, critics say, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Williams, have a diversity problem: Only 10 percent of their current students are Black or Latino, compared to nearly 70 percent citywide. And many blame the tests.
But while de Blasio and other elected officials call for the elimination of the test, for Williams, however, the SHSAT can be a pathway to inclusion, not exclusion. But the City has struggled to establish and maintain an accessible pipeline for students of more color to prepare for the exam.
Below, read Williams’ testimony in full.
My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I have the pleasure of serving as the newly elected Public Advocate for the City of New York. Before I get into my remarks, I’d like to thank all of you in this room — elected representatives and fellow New Yorkers here to testify — for your participation in the conversation on this critical issue.
Under the City Charter, the public advocate is the second highest-ranking citywide elected official, charged with oversight of City operations, and responsible for serving as a conduit between neighborhood streets and the halls of government. My path here, from community organizing and tenant advocacy, through serving the people of the 45th District in City Council, began in New York City public schools. I’m a public school baby, from pre-school to Master’s; for a kid with ADHD and Tourette’s, it’s incredible that I made it through at all; all the way up, my nicknames were “Needs Improvement” and “Promotion in Doubt.”
I owe much of my success in life to getting accepted to Brooklyn Tech and the education I received there. I got that acceptance because of the SHSAT. If left to grades alone, it is unlikely I would’ve been admitted.
I owe much of my success in life to the people in my corner all that time: My mother who always pushed me, and teachers like Ms. Jeanne Nedd, who wouldn’t give up. Another big factor was getting accepted to Brooklyn Tech and the education I received there. I got that acceptance because of the SHSAT. If left to grades alone, it is unlikely I would’ve been admitted, or that I would have been able to accomplish all that I have.
On this day, the exam is the determinative criteria for admission to Brooklyn Tech and the city’s other specialized high schools. This narrow path yields a zero-sum situation where issues are painted in absolutes and communities are set one against another. To break this pattern, we need to recognize the issue isn’t solely about one test, but our education system broadly.
This year, only 10 percent of admissions from SHSAT went to black and Hispanic students even though they make up 70 percent of public school enrollment in New York City.
Whether the SHSAT is kept or canceled, New York City would still have one of the most segregated school systems in America. This year, only 10 percent of admissions from SHSAT went to black and Hispanic students even though they make up 70 percent of public school enrollment in New York City. Last year, students at ten middle schools received over 1,200 offers of admission to specialized high schools — nearly four times the number of offers received by the 526 middle schools in the ten most disadvantaged school districts combined.
While the conversation has largely focused on access to eight specific schools, three of which the City has no authority over the entrance criteria, the lack of diversity is persistent across the entire system over which the City does have authority.
It’s important to realize that it wasn’t always this way, at least at my school. When I was a student at Brooklyn Tech in the 1990s, there were many more students that looked like me walking the halls. Diversity in these schools was still lacking, but to nowhere near this degree.
The clearest failure from then to now has been in establishing and maintaining an accessible pipeline for students of color to prepare for the exam, not only in specific test prep courses but in the classroom.
The clearest failure from then to now has been in establishing and maintaining an accessible pipeline for students of more color to prepare for the exam, not only in specific test prep courses but in the classroom and curriculum. In the past, gifted-and-talented (G&T) programs in middle schools have been a reliable pathway toward specialized high school admission. More recently, we have seen such programs scaled back and cut, including the very program from which I benefited.
A concentrated effort to restore and expand G&T programs in all boroughs and all communities would provide a natural pathway to prepare for the rigors of not only the admissions exam but the curriculum at the specialized schools. Many students of more color, however, are simply not taking the test at all. Correcting the downward trend of participation by black and brown students will require expanded access to test-prep services in all zip codes, as well as a commitment to consistently provide students and families with basic information about the exam itself.
I’d also take this time to highlight that many of these issues — shrinking G&T programs, limited test prep outreach, and more — stem from the chronic underfunding of our schools. New York City, like districts around the state, has had to make do without the full funding they deserve under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling. We can design the best system possible, with just the right proportion of test results and additional access points, but it will remain academic without the resources to execute it.
We can design the best system possible, with just the right proportion of test results and additional access points, but it will remain academic without the resources to execute it.
In closing, eliminating the SHSAT could possibly be beneficial for some students, but for this student 30 years ago, and many others like me now, it would shut us out. There are too many students who, whether because of learning disabilities, challenges at home or a myriad of factors, do not demonstrate their potential in a traditional classroom setting.
For us, a test is a pathway to inclusion, not exclusion. We can secure spots for those who test well, while opening up increased space for multiple-criteria admission. We can also increase the number of specialized high schools in the system as an effort to expand the accessibility of those slots. This needs not to be an either-or conversation.
Thank you to the Committee for taking up this issue.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of BK Reader.