Saturday, February 6, 2010

Closing the Achievement Gap? Black & Hispanic Students Disappear from City's Top High School

As reported today in the NY Times and the Post, a grand total of 7 black students scored high enough on the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT) to be offered admission to Stuyvesant High School. The total for Hispanic students was an equally dismal 17. The under-representation of black and Hispanic students at Stuyvesant has been pointed out for a number of years (see 2006 and 2008 NY Times articles).

During my tenure as a parent and PA officer, there was much consternation about it, but of course nothing that either the PA or the school itself could do (most notably, a mentoring program for students already at Stuyvesant) could improve the dismal admission statistics. These are basically a reflection of the quality of preparation in the lower grades. No doubt the test is culturally biased, but that alone cannot explain the low numbers. And it certainly cannot explain the continuing drop in admissions, as there is no reason to believe the test has become any more culturally biased over the years.

According to the “DOE spokesman" interviewed by the Post reporter, “the demographics of those taking the test and receiving offers has stayed relatively constant in recent years.” The statistics on the DOE's own website tell a different story.

The state statistical reports for Stuyvesant (here and here) indicate that the school had 83 “Black /African-American” students in 2003-4; 75 in 2004-5; 66 in 2005-6, 66 in 2006-7, and 61 in 2007–08; the corresponding numbers for “Hispanic or Latino” are 96, 86, 99, 99 and 93. These classifications are probably somewhat fluid, but there has undoubtedly been a huge fall-off. Incidentally, the shrinking number of black students is even more dramatic when viewed against the backdrop of ever-larger freshman classes (between 2004 and 2009, the freshman class grew from about 700 to almost 1000 students).

Of course, the city's response to the continuing slide in the number of black and Hispanic students who “ace the test” (shorthand for making the cut-off for admission to Stuyvesant) has been more test prep rather than more instruction. Instead of teaching more math, science and English in K-8 (including correct verbal expression and critical reading of books and essays rather than isolated passages), DOE set up a Specialized High School Institute, which gives promising candidates “extra lessons and test-taking tips.” Predictably, the approach hasn’t yielded results. Although it seems that most people who can afford the often substantial fees have given in to SHSAT test-prep frenzy--"cram schools" in Flushing are given much of the credit for the explosion in Asian enrollment at Stuyvesant, while Kaplan and its clones are considered virtually obligatory for everyone else--there's little reason to believe test prep will make a real difference for a child who isn't already adequately prepared in the subjects the test covers.

The stories behind the statistics are instructive and heart-breaking. The 2006 New York Times article cited above reported on two kids in the city's free SHSAT test prep program, which was held at Stuyvesant. (I have edited identifying information):
[A girl], 12, said the very act of striding through Stuyvesant’s gleaming hallways made her feel smart. “You can be like, ‘I could be here, I could be in these desks in a year or two,’ ” she said during her lunch break one day. For [a boy], 12, who got an “overall excellence” medal at his sixth-grade graduation, the experience has been humbling. His teacher at [PS XXX] had called him a “walking dictionary,” but in the first seven pages of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book he read for the institute, he found 71 new vocabulary words.
How can a few weeks of "extra lessons" and "test tips" possibly prepare these kids for the SHSAT, much less the Stuyvesant curriculum? Consider, by contrast, the experience of several kids I know, who moved to New York after going to school overseas, took the SHSAT without much preparation or even familiarity with that sort of test, "aced it" and did well at Stuyvesant. Most did not even speak English in the home, but all were well-prepared to learn what Stuyvesant can offer.

When the Post reporter called me for comment last night, I practically fell off the couch on which I was dozing. The under-representation of black and Hispanic students at Stuyvesant is an old story, but a drop in the black student population from 2%-3% to less than 1% is astonishing. No matter how much BloomKlein may crow about increasing scores on dumbed- down and easily gamed tests, the proof of the pudding eventually is in how many kids get admitted to good high schools. A competitive-exam school such as Stuyvesant is not for everyone, nor would I suggest it is the only avenue to academic success. But I don't see how the administration can claim to be making progress on the racial achievement gap when the number of black kids who qualify for the city’s top high school has fallen to insignificance under their watch.