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.