New York City Specialized High School Complaint

Date Filed: 09/27/2012

In school districts across the nation, talented Black students and other students of color are denied a fair opportunity to gain access to the life-changing educational experiences provided by specialized schools for high-achieving students and gifted/talented education programs. As a result, elite public schools and programs, which provide key pathways to college and then to leadership locally, regionally, and nationally, are among the most segregated.

In too many school districts, these racial disparities result in large part from admissions policies that rely too heavily or even exclusively on standardized tests, even though the three leading organizations in the area of educational test measurement — the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education — have concluded that a high-stakes decision with a major impact on a student’s educational opportunities, such as admission to a specialized or gifted/talented program, should not turn on the results of a single test.  There is also a marked failure to provide Black and Latino students with opportunities to learn the material or otherwise prepare to meet the admissions standards used to determine whether students will be placed in these specialized programs. 


Students who took the exam

Students who received an offer of admission to a Specialized High School

Percentage of test-takers who received an offer of admission to any of the Specialized High Schools

















These problems are particularly acute in New York City. Each year, nearly 30,000 eighth and ninth graders compete for the chance to attend the New York City Department of Education’s (NYCDOE) elite public high schools, known as the “Specialized High Schools.” These eight prestigious institutions, which include Stuyvesant High School (Stuyvesant), The Bronx High School of Science (Bronx Science), and Brooklyn Technical High School (Brooklyn Tech), provide a critical pathway to opportunity for their graduates, many of whom go on to attend the country’s best colleges and universities and later become leaders in our nation’s economic, political, and civic life.

But for decades, a single factor has been used to determine access to these Specialized High Schools — a student’s rank-order score on a 2.5 hour multiple choice test called the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Under this admissions policy, regardless of whether a student has achieved straight A’s from kindergarten through eighth grade or whether they demonstrate other signs of high academic potential, the only factor that matters for admission is their score on a single test.

Moreover, the NYCDOE has continued to use rank-order SHSAT scores as the sole admissions criterion, even though it has never shown that this practice (or the test itself) validly and reliably predicts successful participation in the programs offered by the Specialized High Schools. As education experts have noted, if a test does not predict success, then it is not a fair barometer of merit.

As a result of this policy, year after year, thousands of academically talented Black and Latino students who take the test are denied admission to the Specialized High Schools at rates far higher than those for other racial groups. The impact is particularly severe at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science — two of the Specialized High Schools that serve the largest numbers of students, have the longest track records of educational excellence, and are among the most popular for test-takers.

For example, of the 750 admitted students to Stuyvesant in the fall of 2021, only eight were Black and 20 Latino — compared to 493 Asian students and 152 white students. At Brooklyn Tech, the largest high school in the nation, only 64 Black students and 76 Latino students were admitted out of 1,607. Meanwhile, 844 Asian students and 499 white students were admitted.

In 2012, LDF, along with co-counsel LatinoJustice PRLDEF and The Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College filed a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of a broad coalition of New York education, civil rights and social justice organizations challenging the admissions process at Specialized High Schools. The complainant organizations include the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, La Fuente, Make the Road New YorkAlliance for Quality EducationNew York Communities for ChangeBlack New Yorkers for Educational ExcellenceCommunity Service Society of New YorkGarifuna Coalition USA Inc., the Brooklyn Movement CenterUPROSE, and DRUM – Desis Rising Up and Moving.

Diversity of backgrounds and perspectives has always been New York City’s and the United States’ strength. It helps drive innovation, new ideas, and our national prosperity. For this reason, the key pathways to opportunity in our society, such as those provided by the Specialized High Schools, must be open and accessible to good students from all communities. Ensuring all young people an opportunity to succeed is in everyone’s interest. Unsound and discriminatory admissions policies can no longer be allowed to deprive deserving students of meaningful opportunities.

Statements of Support

 *Institutions listed for identification purposes only

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