Students taken an exam

One week before New York City will elect its next mayor, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and the Community Service Society of New York (CSS) have released a report that provides a series of recommendations for how the next mayor and city leaders can create a fair admissions process into the city’s elite Specialized High Schools.

The new report, “The Meaning of Merit: Alternatives for Determining Admission to New York City’s Specialized High Schools,” explains how the current admissions policy ignores academic merit. It urges the next mayor of New York City to use his authority to immediately change the admissions policy for the five newest Specialized High Schools and join community advocates in calling upon state lawmakers to help change the admissions policy at the three oldest schools—Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech.

The report provides a roadmap for creating a merit-based admissions process that considers multiple measures of student knowledge and potential, including middle school grades, class rank, and scores on state-mandated exams. Other factors, such as attendance, academic portfolios, essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, and consideration of leadership and extracurricular activities could also paint a more comprehensive portrait of each candidate. As detailed in the report, these types of approaches are used by other elite public high schools around the country.

Currently, admission into Specialized High Schools, which are considered some of the most prestigious public high schools in the country, is based exclusively on the results of a single test, known as the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), which education experts agree is arbitrary, inaccurate, and an unfair measure of merit. This is the only such policy in the country. The New York City Department of Education has admitted that it has never studied the SHSAT to determine whether it predicts success in the Specialized High Schools and it has yet to produce any evidence at all on predictive validity.

The current admissions policy has a particularly devastating impact on black and Latino students, who have low admissions rates. Of the nearly 12,000 black and Latino students who took the Fall 2012 SHSAT exam, just over 600 were offered admission to any of the high schools. Stuyvesant High School offered admission to only nine black students out of an incoming class of nearly 1,000 students.

“This admissions policy locks too many qualified New York City students out of an important pipeline to opportunity. Even elite colleges and universities know better than to use a single test as the only factor for admissions,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Not only is this unfair to individual students, it also tells a false story about the intelligence and promise of those black and Latino students who have persevered and pursued excellence despite difficult circumstances in middle school.”

“Amid extraordinary inequality in New York City, it’s the duty of the next mayor to level the playing field and reform the admissions process immediately,” said David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society. “This leadership will demonstrate that the mayor is serious about fulfilling the city’s obligation to its students in helping to equalize opportunity instead of perpetuating inequality.”

The proposed changes would allow the city to take corrective action before a finding of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which launched a federal civil rights investigation into the admissions policy after a complaint filed by LDF, Latino Justice PRLDEF and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College on behalf of CSS and ten other community organizations.

The report is released just days after nearly 30,000 eight graders completed the SHSAT exam and amidst emerging consensus about necessary reforms for the city’s Gifted & Talented identification process and the recent announcement by many of the city’s elite private schools that they will move to decrease reliance on admissions examinations.