At Community Education Council (CEC) 24’s meeting last Wednesday at PS 7 in Elmhurst, the crowd of mostly Chinese-American parents held signs protesting the reform proposal.
They chanted, “keep the test,” in response to the plan’s eventual phase-out of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the sole determinant of entry into schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech.
At multiple points during the tense meeting, CEC 24 President Lucy Accardo had to step in and ask the audience to allow the DOE officials to finish speaking.
“They’re not the bad guys,” she said. “They’re just the messengers.”
Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon and Samuel Daunt, both from the Office of Student Enrollment, presented the mayor and chancellor’s controversial plan.
The proposal would phase out the SHSAT over three years, instead offering seats to the top seven percent of middle school students. Top performers would be ranked based on their state assessments and grades.
This part of the proposal would need to be voted on and passed by the State Legislature.
“A single exam is not the best indicator of student potential,” said Daunt, whose words were greeted with a chorus of boos. “No other district in the country uses a single exam for admission to elite schools.”
The second part of the proposal –– which the mayor can control and plans to implement next summer –– is expanding the Discovery summer program to cover 20 percent of seats at each of the eight specialized high school.
Students are eligible for Discovery if their score on the SHSAT was just below the cutoff mark, come from a disadvantaged background and attend a high-poverty school, Daunt said.
The DOE’s proposal has three goals, the officials said: to use multiple factors for admission, to maintain academic rigor and to increase the diversity at the schools to make them more reflective of New York City public schools.
Daunt noted that while black and Latino students make up 68 percent of public schools in the city, they only made up 9percent of the incoming class at the specialized schools.
Low-income students, meanwhile, comprise three-fourths of all New York City public schools, but represent 40 percent of specialized high schools.
If passed, the reformed admission process would drastically alter the makeup of the elite schools. According to Ramos-Solomon, Asians currently represent half of the student body, while whites are 24 percent.
Under the top 7 percent model, Asians would comprise 30 percent of the schools, and white students would dip down to 15 percent. Black student representation would increase from 3 to 19 percent, and Latino students from six to 27 percent.
The new process would also result in 18 percent more female students, and 21 percent more students who come from low-income backgrounds, across all racial and ethnic lines.
There would be twice as many middle schools represented because the specialized high schools would draw from all over the city.
DOE projections also show that the academic profile of students accepted under the 7 percent model wouldn’t be that different. Under the current admission process, accepted students have an average grade of 94, and 4.1 on state exams.
With the reformed process, the average student would have a GPA of 94 and 3.9 on their state exam.
But parents were not convinced. Henry Choi, vice president of CEC 24 and a Bronx Science alumnus, called the proposal a backward and “cynical ploy.”
“The city is going to distribute some of the intellectually superior kids, kids who are willing to work hard, to other schools,” he said.
He predicted that within a few years of implementation, “a bunch of parents” will begin taking their kids out altogether.
CEC 24 member Jo Ann Berger feared that the change will mean students will be put into academic situations they’re not prepared for, which can lead to social and emotional issues.
“We’re setting them up for failure,” she said.
Berger asserted that the DOE is breaking down students by their race, a practice with which she disagrees.
“I teach my children not to look at someone and judge them by their race,” she said.
Charlie Vavruska, a parent and community activist who has been organizing against the SHSAT reforms, said the test doesn’t ask students about their race, where they’re from or who their parents are. He called them “objective and merit-based.”
“We believe every child should have the opportunity to get into the best high schools in America,” he said. “If some students do not have the tools to get in, Chancellor Carranza needs to fix it.
“We want to bring every child up, we don’t want to bring any child down,” Vavruska added. “That’s what this proposal does.”
Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, said the reforms are “all about race,” not education. She said the Chinese were once “excluded from this country,” a reference to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that barred Chinese laborers, because “we performed too well.”
“We want people in this country who perform well,” she said. “You don’t change the rules when one team does well. You make all teams better.”
Deborah Alexander, co-president of CEC 30 in the adjacent district, also opposes the plan. She called the proposal “politics.”
“We’re not sacrificing one group of students for another like the Hunger Games,” Alexander said.
To get rid of the SHSAT, the State Senate, currently run by Republicans, would have to vote and approve the measure. State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky said she won’t vote in favor of the change.
Stavisky, a Bronx Science graduate, said the DOE should instead look at other measures to improve outcomes, such as expanding Gifted and Talented programs, providing free test prep and practice SHSATs for all students and creating more specialized high schools.
“I believe we must keep the test because the SHSAT does not recognize race, gender, religion or ethnicity,” Stavisky said. “It’s still the fairest method to determine admissions.”