Students hoping to get into some of New York City’s most coveted public high schools have a much better shot coming from a handful of top middle schools, data show.
At eight high schools that depend on a tough exam for entry, more than a quarter of the ninth-grade seats this fall were offered to applicants from just 10 high-achieving public middle schools.
The numbers highlight just how hard it can be for anxious parents trying to help their children get into what they see as the best high schools, and help explain the difficulty of diversifying so-called specialized high schools, such as Stuyvesant High School.
All 10 of these feeder middle schools screen children for ability, either for entrance or their popular gifted programs, and most have small fractions of black and Hispanic students.
The Christa McAuliffe School in Borough Park, Brooklyn, is the biggest feeder to the elite high schools: Out of last year’s 288 eighth-graders, 244 were admitted, city data show. About 1% of the middle school’s students are black, 4% are Hispanic and 74% are Asian—about the same demographics as Stuyvesant.
Some experts say the challenge of helping more black and Hispanic students get into Stuyvesant and seven other specialized high schools starts in the earliest grades.
Young children tend to go to local elementary schools that mirror the racial makeup and income level of their neighborhoods. When many students vie for entry into selective middle schools, those in struggling elementary schools are often left behind.
“The sorting begins very early,” said Clara Hemphill, founder of InsideSchools.org, a service based at The New School that reviews public schools for parents. “You really have to start with integrating the schools in prekindergarten because by eighth grade the die is cast. It’s really hard for working-class black and Latino kids to catch up [after] nine years of inadequate public education.”
Top feeders to the specialized high schools include Mark Twain I.S. 239 for the Gifted and Talented in Brooklyn, where 188 eighth-graders were offered seats to the specialized high schools for this fall. Mark Twain requires applicants to test or try out in two talent areas such as math, music, creative writing and drama. At Mark Twain, 11% of students are black and 16% Hispanic.
That is lower than the ratios citywide: The education department says about 28% of city students are black and 40% are Hispanic.
By a 1971 state law, getting into three of the specialized high schools depends on scoring high on a multiple-choice exam called the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. That includes Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School. Five more schools adopted the policy.
This past summer Mayor Bill de Blasio , the United Federation of Teachers and several legislators pushed to change the law to make admission to these sought-after schools depend on multiple measures, such as grades and attendance as well as test scores. That sparked an outcry from groups who argued that would lower standards, threaten the schools’ academic excellence, and possibly make them even less diverse.
The long-simmering issue took up much of a daylong hearing of City Council’s education committee on Dec. 11. Before it started, more than 50 alumni and parents at specialized high schools held a rally outside waving signs saying “Keep the test” and “The test is not the problem.” Many were Asian parents worried that scrapping the test as the sole admissions criterion would limit their children’s access. One held a sign saying “I am a minority.”
Asian students received 53% of the offers to the eight specialized high schools this year, while making up 15% of students citywide.
Ursulina Ramirez, chief of staff for Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, said at the hearing that her staff was researching how multiple measures could work. The department was also considering giving the test to all eighth-graders, offering more free test preparation, and finding ways to make sure more parents know about the exam.
Critics of the admission test say it unfairly bars students who can’t afford intensive test preparation, don’t test well or were trapped in subpar middle schools. Some say the test is biased.
Stephen Levin, a Democratic councilman in Brooklyn, called the admissions process “an antiquated system that reduces our students to one test score on one day.”
Laura Hamilton, president of the PTA at the Christa McAuliffe School. Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal
But many supporters say the test is the most objective, meritocratic way to ensure spots go to those who can thrive at these high-pressure schools—and note that some of the eight are more diverse than Stuyvesant.
Laura Hamilton, president of the Parent Teachers Association at the Christa McAuliffe School, backs the test and thinks the city should give it to all eighth-graders, because many families don’t know about it.
She said her school’s students excel partly because the faculty does a tremendous job of teaching the complex math on the exam. Many students get extra tutoring, in some cases for years. Many have “immigrant parents who believe the specialized high schools are the way to success,” she said. “Their children know they have to work hard.”
The Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations argues that the real solution would be developing more gifted programs, enrichment and high-quality middle schools in African-American and Latino communities.
“We are not Neanderthals opposed to diversity,” said Larry Cary, president of the board of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation. “But we produce too few kids capable of helping the city be a STEM [science, technology engineering and math] and startup capital.…We need them to lead the economy and lead our future.”