Don’t Scrap the Test, Help Black Kids Ace It

Commentary on New York’s elite high schools has focused wrongly on access over preparation.

Stuyvesant High School
Jessica B. Kirk / Shutterstock

Is there something racist in the way the chattering classes discuss the low number of black students admitted to New York City’s most selective public high schools?

The figures are depressing indeed. This year, only seven out of 895 admits to Stuyvesant were black, as opposed to 587 Asian and 194 white kids. Only 12 out of the 803 students admitted to the Bronx High School of Science were black, and only 95 out of 1,825 admitted to Brooklyn Tech. This is all in a city in which 26 percent of public-school students are black.

Since 1971, admission to the eight most selective public schools in the city has been based solely on performance on a single test, the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT. The naive observer of the current circumstances—say, a foreigner new to the country or an inquisitive 10-year-old—might suppose that the main question would be how New York, its parents and teachers, can help black students do better on that test.

But no—New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to scrap the test, and instead admit the top performers from all middle schools. New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson agrees, advising that a task force develop a different way of evaluating students based on some kind of feedback from parents and assorted experts. Richard Carranza, the school-system chancellor, also wants to get rid of the test, and has claimed that Asian students somehow believe they “own” admission to the top public schools. Meanwhile, the journalistic establishment seems to assume that fixing the problem will require a massive social shift. The New York Times tartly summed up that either “1) the test is flawed and not accurately capturing the best and brightest students, or 2) the test is fair, and the schools that are preparing these children are bad.”

Either ax the test or overhaul the schools, in other words. But what about the more local and pragmatic solution of helping black kids do better on the test? This position isn’t nonexistent, but it’s considered contrarian, unexpected, or even plutocratic and backwards. The cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder and former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons have argued that the city should keep the test while fostering more gifted programs and test prep for black and Latino students, only for de Blasio to describe such opinions as follows: “The billionaire class is going all out to keep the status quo, and deprive black and Hispanic kids of their shot at the city’s specialized high schools.”

What kind of charge is that to level at Parsons, a black man who grew up working-class? And in general, why does so much of the debate over these admissions discrepancies operate according to a tacit assumption, that to discuss black kids getting better at the tests is ticklish at best and piggish at worst? There are reasons, in themselves quite well-meaning, for this mannered approach to the problem, but they don’t hold up.

Most easily dismissed is the idea that standardized tests such as the SHSAT measure nothing that would be valuable in deciding whether a child is poised to do well in a highly competitive school. For example, if the test fails to catch a significant portion of what makes a top student, perhaps focusing on too narrow a skill set, then just what additional skills will the elimination or marginalization of the test bring in? “Spunk”? We must be precise. Plus, if white and Asian kids regularly do much better in the aggregate on this test than black kids, then clearly that test is measuring something that black kids are not measuring up to. On what grounds does the city decide that this something merits no attention? And honestly, who truly believes that this something has nothing whatsoever to do with being a high-achieving student?

I sense a background suspicion among some that black kids are just not up to acing such tests on some ineradicable level. What else explains why commentators on this issue are so focused on “access” over preparation? “We must strive to make sure that every student has access to the quality education they are entitled to,” said Johnson, the council speaker, as if black students’ performance on the test were beside the point and it were impossible to imagine it ever changing. In 2012, the mother of a black Stuyvesant student told The New York Times that a co-worker, also black, said: “The exam is built to exclude blacks because it’s heavy on math, and black people can’t do math.”

However, there are plenty of black people of different mind; Richard Parsons is not alone. Jumaane Williams, New York’s public advocate, is passionately devoted to the poor black community of the city, and he is also against getting rid of the test. Plus, the idea of black kids managing that test is no pie-in-the-sky abstraction: It was a reality back in the day. In 1975, 303 out of 2,536 students at Stuyvesant were black; in 1980, 212. Many New Yorkers (including me) recall it being hardly unusual for black students to attend the elite public schools until well into the 1990s.

The issue is not how New York can create something brand new, but how the city can make things the way they were.

Other arguments often brought up in relation to black kids and tests won’t work this time. Is black kids’ problem that their parents often work too long and hard to be available to help them with homework and exams when they get home? That isn’t a useful line of argument, as a great many of the nonblack students at schools such as Stuyvesant are not affluent scions of educated white parents on the Upper West Side, but children of hard-working, working-class immigrant parents of modest education themselves. Also, black kids’ parents worked quite hard in the 1970s and 1980s as well, when the admissions discrepancies were much less severe.

Also, the issue is not that the nonblack kids have access to expensive test preparation that is unavailable to the black ones. For several years, New York City has offered free test preparation to its students, some for low-income students, some for all. The problem has been that too many black families are unaware of the service or do not take advantage of it.

Or say the test isn’t the problem, exactly—it’s the schools, or the Times’ option 2: “The test is fair, and the schools that are preparing these children are bad.” Black kids are disproportionately saddled with substandard educations in New York City. That’s a fact. Leaving aside the number of immigrant kids admitted to the top schools despite the flaws in these ailing public schools, many suppose that until the system improves, places such as Stuyvesant have a civic responsibility to admit black kids with lower test scores than those allowed to other kids. The city, that is to say, must redefine excellence according to the performance levels possible in a system distorted by systemic racism.

But admitting students unquestionably less well-prepared than today’s cohort will compromise the overall quality of the schools. Some might consider that outcome just deserts for those favored in a society riven with inequality, and perhaps even as a constructive wake-up call to them. However, we must consider that this lowered quality would apply also to the black kids newly admitted under these lowered standards; the city would admit these students into elite schools no longer as rigorous as they once were. “Greater diversity in our schools is an imperative,” Parsons has argued, “but the battle cannot be won simply by lowering standards.”

Let us address, then, a question less easily dismissed than polite discussion trains us to suppose: How can we make black kids in New York better at the SHSAT?

One approach is to more effectively spread the word in New York’s black communities about the free test-preparation classes. Many immigrant kids take test-prep courses and practice tests. There is no evidence that doing this is impossible for a critical mass of black American students in New York. Notably, I am aware of no reports that black students did ample test prep and yet still failed to be admitted to any of New York’s eight selective public schools. Rather, we hear simply of the admissions disparities, and—as mentioned above— the fact that black families often do not know the test exists, or how to learn to prepare for it.

Second, rather than assuming that this problem will only be solved by something as elusive and even quixotic as overhauling as vast and troubled a public-school system as New York’s into one where every student gets a top-quality education anytime soon, we can focus on a narrower problem: the lack of gifted-and-talented classrooms for minority students. The “anti-tracking” movement in the early 1990s — born of the philosophy that mixing children of different abilities is more effective and equitable — led to the gradual elimination of these classrooms in heavily black public schools. Today, 10 New York districts where nine in 10 students are black or Latino have either one or no gifted-and-talented program in the public elementary schools.

The decline in gifted programs may well have something to do with the dearth of black students at elite high schools. And if talented black students were once again regularly tracked into these programs, more would likely qualify for schools such as Stuyvesant. In fact, in an interview with the Times, minority students now at Stuyvesant offered that prescription.

Finally, the city should sponsor community meetings where parents of nonblack students discuss what they did to ensure that their kids got into top public schools. Surely this advice could be useful, especially given that once again, so many of these parents are as hard-working, time-crunched, and modestly educated as many of the black parents are.

It is hardly inappropriate to explore the degree to which tests such as the SHSAT actually measure scholarly potential. However, to eliminate the test now would be to do so simply because black students were underperforming on it. Whatever the good intentions behind that move, it would be antithetical to civic harmony. Nonblack parents would be permanently furious that the achievement of their children was no longer affirmed in such a measurable and celebratory way. Meanwhile, it would leave black students vulnerable to racist attacks on their intelligence, in a way that no amount of euphemisms, taboos, and questions studiously unasked would prevent. We can do better than that.

Zora Neale Hurston had useful words on issues like these: “If I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.”

We should yank the test only after we show that black students can handle it regardless of its flaws. We can handle imperfection just like everybody else and we can prove it—as long as we can sit down and get dealt in.