New York Law School

NAACP Legal Defense Fund Files Complaint Challenging Specialized High Schools

On September 29, 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (“LDF”) filed a complaint against the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) and New York State Department of Education (NYSDOE), alleging that the admissions process for New York City’s Specialized High Schools (SHS’s) causes unjustified racially disparate impact, and is therefore in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The admissions process is determined solely by a student’s rank-order score on a multiple-choice exam called the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). LDF’s complaint alleges that this admissions process results in many qualified, high-potential students being denied access to the experiences that New York City’s Specialized High Schools offer.

New York State law requires that admissions to the city’s SHS’s (Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School) must be based “solely and exclusively” upon students’ rank-order scores on “a competitive, objective and scholastic achievement examination.” Before taking the SHSAT, students list the SHS that he or she wants to attend in order of preference. The exam itself is composed of a verbal and math section; for each section, the total number of correct answers is converted into a “scaled score.” This scaled score is created by a formula that varies from year to year, based both on the difficulty level of the questions and the relative performance of test-takers. These scaled scores for each section are added together to create a final “composite score.”  While there are no pre-established cut-off scores, in practice the lowest score for students admitted into one of the schools is treated as the cut-off score.

In its complaint, LDF lays out the acceptance rates for the past four years based on race, and the results are staggering.  According to the complaint, just 5% of African American students received admissions offers to the SHS’s, and just fewer than 7% of Latinos received admissions over those four years. In comparison, white students averaged about 32% of those who received admissions, and Asian students averaged 35% of the admissions. Even more alarming, the acceptance rates for Stuyvesant and Bronx Science for African American and Latino students just last year was 2% and 3.3% respectively.

Based on these statistics, the admissions process has a disparate impact on African American and Latino students. As a result, it perpetuates racial isolation of these students in New York City’s SHS’s, especially in Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science. LDF claims that this process also leads to increased racial tensions in these high schools. Finally, a lack of diverse learning environments leave all of these students less prepared to function in an increasingly diverse world.

The complaint also questions whether the exam criteria are “required by educational necessity,” as contemplated under Title VI. To meet this burden, a recipient of federal funds must show that a challenged practice bears a manifest relationship to an objective that is “legitimate, important, and integral to [its] educational mission.” Furthermore, if the challenged practice is an admissions exam, that exam must be used in a way that validly and reliably predicts an applicant’s performance on metrics that are vital to satisfactory participation in the educational program. The complaint cites acknowledgments from New York City officials that a study attempting to validate the SHSAT was never conducted. Furthermore, the NYCDOE never attempted to assure that the SHSAT had any relationship at all between the content of the exam and the curriculum of the SHS’s, nor any relationship between the scores on the SHSAT and the academic performance of students taking the exam.

Finally, the complaint asks whether there are alternative practices available that would be equally effective while having less of a racially disparate impact on students. The complaint suggests taking things like middle school grades, attendance, and teacher recommendations into consideration, to be considered along with the SHSAT as one of several factors determining acceptance to New York City’s SHS’s. Also, the abolition of the rank order, which LDF claims exacerbates the racial disparities in admissions, is another suggestion for an alternative practice readily available. Instead, scores on the verbal and math section can be considered separately rather than combined into a single score, and each section can be used as one of many other criteria previously mentioned to determine admissions. Finally, LDF suggests reserving seats for top students at middle schools across the city, in the hopes that this would help foster geographic diversity.

While these suggestions are all well-intentioned, it is important to note some of the logistical issues with implementing these alternative practices. In regards to taking middle school grades into consideration for the admissions process, how would those evaluating admissions weigh student grades? Do they take particular grades into account, such as Math and English grades, or would they focus solely on a student’s overall average? Also, how are grades from one school compared to grades from another school? It is clear that not every middle school in New York City is created equally, so the admissions process would have to decide whether or not to weigh grades differently depending on what middle school a student attended.

The suggestion for reserving seats for top students at middle schools across the city also creates a series of issues. According to last year’s admissions statistics, 11,446 students were admitted to the three SHS’s. Using this figure, how many of these seats would be reserved for top students at middle schools across the city?  Also, how would admissions decide which students would be reserved a seat for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, or Brooklyn Tech? Will it be based on a random selection, or will grades for each of the top students in middle schools around the city be compared to one another? Perhaps these students will be individually interviewed to determine which top students are guaranteed a seat at Stuyvesant High School, and which will be demoted to a guaranteed seat at The Bronx High School of Science or Brooklyn Technical High School. These decisions would have to be made rather quickly, because students graduate from middle school in June and begin high school in September.

While LDF’s complaint does not provide answers for these concerns, it is clear that there is a serious problem with the SHS admissions process. This complaint represents the first step in bringing about a change to a flawed system. Advocates for the SHSAT will say that the exam and admissions process has lasted over 40 years and has produced the best results possible for the students that have been fortunate enough to attend these high schools. However, it is important that these opportunities become available to all students, regardless of their race or ethnicity. If changes are implemented to the SHS admissions process to provide more diversity within these storied institutions, generations of students and citizens will benefit.

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