There is a lot of debate in New York City about why the acceptance of black and Latin American students at their very selective elite public high schools in the city remains extremely low. The New York Department of Education recognizes what many insist that a performance-based system contains a lot of implicit prejudices as the reason why "diversity is stagnating in the city's best learning institutions".
New data released by Department of Education officials shows that the number of black and Latin American students in elite public schools remains largely unchanged, although 7 out of 10 students come from this population group.
In contrast, black and Latin students in the 2020-2021 school year accounted for only 11.1 percent of admitted students to the best public schools in the city – an increase of only 0.5 percent over the previous year, according to admissions statistics from the NYC Department of Education.
Finally, while admission to these well-funded, academically superior schools is based on standardized tests, the Department of Education admits that test methods are biased against black and Latin American students, especially those who come from under-funded elementary and middle schools.
"The diversity of our specialized high schools continues to stagnate as we know that a single test won't unlock our students' full potential," said Richard A. Carranza, Chancellor of the City's Department of Education, in an emailed statement from NBC. "I am confident that we will move to a fairer system next year."
Eight of the nine specialized high schools admit solely on the basis of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Amy Stuart Wells, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University, described the test as "the new Jim Crow of public education". She says standardized tests are not a sufficient measure to make such decisions.
"We know that student learning and knowledge is cultural and that too often standardized tests are culturally biased, which results in racial and ethnic differences in results," said Wells, executive director of Reimagining Education for a Racially Just Society at the University teacher school.
"New York City is the country's most disparate school system for black students (and) the second most common for Latinx students," said David Kirkland, executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. according to NBC News. "It is incomprehensible to have these numbers in a city that works for justice and diversity."
Kirkland believes there are a number of factors why black and Latin American students are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to standardized tests. Part of this is due to the inability to afford exam preparation materials and culturally biased languages and tasks that appear in the exam.
"I don't realize that these tests necessarily test skills as well as parents' income or sociological location," he said.
Much of the criticism of the low admissions rate is related to a standardized test, some of which believe that it creates disproportionate obstacles for already under-represented groups.
Kirkland states that there are a number of alternative approval procedures to address the issue. He believes the University of Texas system is good because it guarantees the admission of a percentage of top performers to any high school – a more qualitative approach based on interviews and recommendations from teachers.
NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio is one of the advocates of a new system. He previously advocated ending the admission test in favor of the Texas approach. Still, the SHSAT was a political hot potato, and many continued to be concerned about the possible side effects.
In 2012, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, along with the NAACP Fund for Legal Defense and Education and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, filed a federal civil rights complaint against the city's Ministry of Education. They claim that thousands of black and Latin American students have been refused admission by SHSAT.
José Pérez, the organization's deputy general counsel, claims that while the city claims to have reviewed the test, the underlying problem remains unsolved.
"There are students with excellent academic qualifications, community engagement, and leadership skills, but they may not only be able to test this one test well," he said. "Does that prevent you from ever getting a seat at one of these eight specialized high schools, opening the doors and really being ways to the Ivy League universities?"
As for Kirkland, it comes down to one question of politics: "Nothing has changed in politics, so nothing has changed in the results we are achieving," he said. "There are recommendations on the table and we have to be brave enough, brave enough to look at them closely."