There are currently eight specialized high school in New York City. Out of the total 100,000 8th graders in the New York City school system about 25,000 take the SHSAT — the sole criteria for admissions — around 5,000 offers are given to the top scorers. 3,000 of the seats go to the original ‘big 3’ schools — Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. The other 2,000 go to the five more recently created schools.
An idea I’ve read in various editorials is to simply open more specialized schools. They did it in the past when they opened the newer five schools and nearly doubled the available seats. So why not just open enough so that all 25,000 test takers can attend a specialized high school? Or even better, why not just make all the high schools specialized high schools so that everyone can attend one? Problem solved, right?
How many, exactly, specialized high schools should there be?
For some people, the answer is very simple. There should be no specialized high schools. The first question I posed in this series was “Should specialized high schools exist?” and there are plenty of people who say the answer is “no” so for them the right number is zero. In that first post I explained why I disagree with that, but I can definitely see the rationale. One compelling argument is that by having the top students spread out throughout the school system, every school has some of those students and those students serve to raise the level in that school. Having different ability levels mixed together can be a good thing as the more advanced learners can help the less advanced learners and everyone can benefit, including the advanced learners since it is a valuable exercise to explain what you know to someone else.
Some people have noted that the SHSAT is a contest and the the top 5,000 students get in regardless of what their scores are and that a better way would be to establish a cutoff score beforehand and if fewer than 5,000 students achieve that score, maybe one of the specialized high schools is turned back into a non-specialized high school and if more than 5,000 students achieve that score then more specialized high school would need to be created. I don’t think this is a great idea, we wouldn’t do that for the Olympics, not field a team because the best we have did not meet some low bar. We wouldn’t be able to do men’s soccer anymore. But I think this idea comes from the possibility that maybe Latino and Black students are doing very well on the SHSAT but that the Asian and White students are just doing so much better and if there was a cutoff point and it turned out the the Black and Latino students were over that cutoff then we should create as many specialized schools as would be needed. In that way, it’s kind of interesting. This is why we should have more access to the SHSAT so things like this can be researched.
But for me, I think there should be at least one. It’s like asking “Should there be a Harvard University?” True, not everyone gets to go there, but I think it is good for there to be a “best” school that people aspire too (I know I’m going to get some hate mail from Yale graduates, I’m just saying Harvard as an example. I got rejected from Harvard and went to Tufts — Go Jumbos!). Or should there be an Olympic gymnastics team? I feel like there should, but maybe there’s a downside where so many young gymnasts spend their youth trying to make it to the Olympics but the vast majority of them never will. I don’t know, it seems like even those gymnasts enhanced their lives with exercise and discipline. Should there have never been The Beatles? Maybe all of these are rhetorical and I can come up with something where the answer isn’t so cut and dry like should there be an Andover school.
So I believe there should be at least one. But New York City has five boroughs and if that one school only admits 800 students a year out of 100,000, maybe it is too low of a percent. So for a while there were three schools admitting 3% of the students and now there are eight schools admitting 5% of the students. Somewhere between 5% and 100% the perfect number lies, but what do you think it is?
I will argue against 100%. I know it might sound good to say “Let’s make all schools specialized high schools” but depending on how you define ‘specialized high schools’ maybe not all students even want to attend a school like that.
I also think that even 25% would be too many. I mentioned above about how someone opposed to any specialized schools could be concerned about ‘brain drain’ and that by taking too many of the top students away from a school, the remaining students don’t get the benefit of the energy and motivation that those students bring to the school. So having too many specialized schools could make that happen but currently with specialized schools only taking 5,000 of the students who took the SHSAT, there are still another 20,000 or 80% of the test takers who do not get an offer to the specialized schools and those students serve the role of bringing up the level in whatever school they attend.
One thing about the whole ‘make more specialized high schools’ confuses me. Is the real problem in New York City that we have too many students who are able to handle the rigor of a Stuyvesant High School? I thought the problem was that we have too many students who are not able to pass the state tests. Which one is it? Or is it both?
There is an assumption baked into the ‘make more specialized high schools’ suggestion that the Latino and Black students just missed the cutoff score so if we could create 4,000 more seats then the schools would be more diversified. But I reached out to one of the few people who actually has the data to test this. Here’s what he wrote to me:
I did a quick look at the 2013 SHSAT results. That year 5094 students were admitted, 52% Asian, 25% white, 6.4% Hispanic, 4.6% Black, 10% unknown. If the lowest admissions score were lowered from 479 to 440, 8678 students would have been admitted, 46% Asian, 25% White, 8.8% Hispanic, and 7.3% Black. The additional students would have been 1338 Asians (37%), 890 Whites (25%), 528 Hispanics (15%), 398 Black (11%)
So there is some truth to the theory but still 62% of the 4,000 new spots would go to Asian and White students.
So making new schools but keeping the same admissions policy is not going to get the demographics that mirror the demographics of the city in general. There are two ways to change this, you can change the entrance policy (I will explore this in future posts) or you can invest resources into the pipeline so that more Latino and Black students will be able to compete in whatever the process is (I argued for that in the previous post).