March is a nerve-racking time for New York City’s public-school eighth graders. These 80,000 or so youngsters will soon receive high-school acceptance letters, and for many this time marks the culmination of months—sometimes years—spent hitting the books, meeting with tutors, and sprucing up resumes. That’s because admission into one of the city’s 400 or so public high schools is rarely automatic: Each kid ranks and applies to as many as 12 schools, and recent statistics suggest that less than half of a year’s applicants get into their first-choices, while 10 percent of them—nearly 8,000 kids—don’t get a match at all. (The city puts these remaining kids in a second round of admissions, allowing them to submit new rankings with the left-over schools that have available seats.) At some of these high schools, acceptance is as easy as attending an open house to demonstrate interest; at others, the application process is as demanding as vying for a spot at a top-tier university.

Then there are the crème de la crème of New York City’s public high schools: the nine prestigious "specialized" institutions that are often seen as informal feeders for the Ivy League. Only 5,000 kids are offered admissions to these college-prep schools, which students can pursue in addition to their 12 choices. And with the exception of the arts-focused LaGuardia High, the application requirements for a specialized school are extremely simple: All they entail, in accordance with a long-standing state law, is a 150-minute multiple-choice test known as the SHSAT. But critics say the test encourages a culture of exclusivity—one that, matched with the schools’ notorious lack of student diversity, has been subject to intense debate over the years.

The ongoing controversy includes a pending federal complaint filed with the Department of Education in 2012 by a coalition of civil-rights groups and efforts by policymakers such as Mayor Bill de Blasio and state legislators to change the rule. They argue the rule marginalizes black and Latino students. "As a result of the NYCDOE’s exclusive, unjustified, and singular reliance on the SHSAT," the federal complaint reads, "many fully qualified, high-potential students are denied access to the life-changing experiences that the Specialized High Schools offer."

But when it comes to diversity, is the test really to blame? A new brief from NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools suggests that the culprit is much bigger than testing and that some of the solutions being proposed by advocates—broader criteria for admissions, adding metrics such as grades or attendance records, for example—would do very little to enhance minority representation at the school. Certain alternatives would even decrease the percentage of black students at the schools, according to the study, which analyzed student data from the eight specialized institutions. This research suggests that much of the criticism against and high-level advocacy work surrounding New York City’s specialized schools are uninformed and potentially misguided in their focus.

Changing the criteria "had a lot smaller of an impact than I would’ve predicted," said Sean Corcoran, one of the researchers and an associate professor of educational economics at NYU. (Corcoroan and co-researcher Christine Baker-Smith analyzed the trajectories of specialized-school students over the course of eight years and also simulated the effect of various alternative admissions criteria based on data from 2009 applicants.) "Considering that none [of the alternatives] had a really marked effect on diversity, if increasing diversity in these schools is an explicit goal, then the admissions criteria would have to be designed specifically around that … But it would have to be an explicit goal."

That could mean, for example, establishing quotas for each bureau to ensure better representation of the city’s diverse student demographics. This approach might be similar to the algorithmic system recently implemented at Chicago’s 10 selective-enrollment schools, which aims to enhance student diversity while avoiding the legal morass that explicit school racial quotas caused across the country in the 90s; at these 10 schools, admission is based on a combination of merit and socioeconomic factors, and for the most part students only compete with peers who live in similar circumstances.

In a typical year, about 25,000 New York City eighth graders take the SHSAT, and roughly 20 percent of them are accepted to a specialized school. Specialized high-school students account for just 6 percent of the city’s entire eighth-grade public-school population—and just a smidgen of those who represent traditionally disadvantaged or minority demographics. These elite high schools have, as the NYU brief notes, "become a powerful symbol in a larger public debate about educational equity."

Indeed, the city’s elite schools have long served disproportionately low numbers of black, Latin, and female students. Among incoming ninth graders in 2013 at the three largest specialized institutions—Stuyvesant, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical School—57 percent were boys, 22 percent were white, and a whopping 64 percent were Asian. Just 4 percent and 5 percent were black or Latino, respectively. The numbers are especially alarming considering the city’s general eighth-grade demographics: 51 percent male, 17 percent Asian, 13 percent white, 28 percent black, and 40 percent Latino. In other words, while blacks and Latinos accounted for more than two-thirds of the city’s overall eighth-grade population, they made up less than one-tenth of those enrolled at the elite institutions.

What the study found, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that the ethnic and gender disparities trace back to deeper systemic problems and emerge much earlier than—and persist well beyond—the admissions process. This was the case even when the researchers compared kids with similar levels of earlier academic achievement based on how they scored on the state’s seventh-grade standardized test. The only policy that would substantially change the mix is one that guarantees admission to all eighth-graders who are in the top 10 percent of their school—but this would take a toll on the general academic achievement of the incoming class.

First off, female, low-income, and Latino students were each 3 percent less likely to even take the SHSAT, which is free but optional. Asian students, a demographic that’s figured prominently in the debates over the admissions policies, were 17 percent more likely than average to take the test; anecdotally, the SHSAT is particularly popular among first-generation Asian families.

Female, low-income, Latino, and black students were all significantly less likely to receive admissions offers—even after controlling for seventh-grade test scores. Asians were significantly more likely to get an offer. And discrepancies arise when it comes to accepting admissions offers, too, particularly among females, who were 11 percent less likely than their male counterparts to accept the offer. Low-income and Asian kids were, respectively, 5 percent and 20 percent more likely than the average accepted student to take the offer.

Meanwhile, more than half of the 5,000 or so kids admitted to these selective institutions come from just 5 percent of the city’s middle schools. Interestingly enough, after controlling for prior academic achievement the study concluded that where a student attends middle school in itself isn’t a big factor in whether that kid is admitted—a finding that surprised Corcoran. In other words, at least according to the study’s analysis, the specialized high schools don’t appear to give preference to certain middle-school institutions, which suggests the racial discrepancies are stemming from something even more insidious.

What does appear to make a difference is the "sorting" of supposedly high- and low-achieving kids that happens well before these later years, causing uneven distributions early on. For example, among the students who came from one of the top 30 "feeder" middle schools, 58 percent were in gifted and talented programs that required a test for admission, and 29 percent were in other types of screened schools that admit kids based on criteria such as exam scores. This phenomenon is also known "tracking," which even the DOE has described as a modern-day form of segregation, and indicates that a much deeper problem lies in the tendency to test and segregate children from the get go. The analysis raises questions about the extent to which inadvertent engineering—starting with the so-called "rug-rat race"—is exacerbating the achievement gap.

There are several caveats to the simulations, of course. It’s difficult to gauge how prospective admissions-policy changes would affect student behavior; greater emphasis on other components, for example, might prompt applicants to adjust their academic priorities, yielding different outcomes. And because they’re based exclusively on quantifiable data, the simulations don’t look at some of the more qualitative application alternatives that have been proposed, such as essays or interviews.

Still, these findings provide new insight previously lacking from debates about reforming the admissions system: "Until now, there has been surprisingly little evidence to inform policymakers as they consider strategies to diversity NYC’s specialized schools," the policy brief says, reiterating the need to focus efforts on tackling the root causes of misrepresentation in New York City’s tiered school system. In the meantime, possible public-policy solutions include strategies for getting more students—particularly girls and those from traditionally marginalized groups—to take the SHSAT and enhancing access to free high-quality test prep. Moreover, "students’ preferences about where to attend high school are also clearly influencing the specialized school enrollment picture—particularly for girls (who are less likely to accept an offer) and Asian students (who are more likely to do so)," the brief says. "Providing families with more information about specialized schools, earlier on, might help seed interest in attending."

And, admissions diversity aside, whether these specialized high schools are as valuable for students as they are desirable is debatable. As the researchers point out, evidence is mixed that attending one of these institutions has "measurable educational benefits" for kids, including minorities, who are already high-achieving—essentially any student who would be admitted in the first place. And New York City has dozens of other high-caliber selective public schools—many of which offer rich academic programs that aren’t available at the specialized ones. After all, six of the nine elite high schools tout focuses on science, technology, engineering, or math.  

"I definitely see the value of having selective admissions schools ... but prestige is hard to quantify," Cocoran said. "It does create this system in which there’s a perception that there’s a small number of schools that are worth going to while the others aren’t so great."

That explains why March is such a daunting month for swathes of the city’s 80,000 eighth graders. Forget college—in New York City, the quest for success starts young and never lets up.