Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 9 “How many specialized high schools should there be?”

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).

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7 Responses to Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 9 “How many specialized high schools should there be?”

  1. Chris Moth says:

    Sorry to jump in and out of this series of posts.

    I have yet to hear a cogent answer from anyone _why_ score-screened _public_ schools should exist. Yes, there is a Harvard. But Harvard exists in the private sector, where there is a clear market for the experience of never having one’s child bump into the lower 99.99% of the population. Moreover, the university level is adult education. Its stated purposes have nothing to do with equity, nor K-12 public school architecture.

    Harvard is a simple function of the private market, and our natural tendency to seek ever higher levels of segregation from those who are not as affluent (or intelligent) as we are. In the public school environment, we have a moral obligation to educate _everyone_ to their full potential. That means excellent AP/IB/Cambridge college prep. That means special education for kids with disabilities.

    Until there I hear a clear reason why segregation _within_ the walls of a school cannot satisfy the aspirations of the entire bell curve of students, then I must claim that segregating kids out of school buildings, relegating them to wait-lists, or second class status, is a failure in the structure of our school districts.

    “Parents like them” or “Challenging students” or “reducing flight” are reasons that have been stated at vary points in the recent posts and followup commentary. But, all of those congregation can be addressed by segregation (perhaps test scores, perhaps pre-requisite courses) inside of our school buildings.

    Our School Districts never take the trouble to compare the academic performance of kids at score-segregated schools vs. integrated schools. It could well be that there is “hard data” to tell us clearly that the entire endeavor of segregation is an academic fraud. I’m 99% sure segregtion of the top X%, and declaring the segregated to attend “good schools” is a total fraud.

    But, I always look forward to learning, and being shown wrong.

    Meanwhile, since college-level as entered the discussion, we should start by debunking the insanity of the US News rankings (which also puts segregated K-12 schools like Stuyvesant in the top 10).


    • SickOfTheIgnorance says:

      You don’t know what you’re talking about. Some 55% of Harvard students receive financial aid and 1 in 5 pays nothing for tuition because their families are low-income.

      I graduated from Harvard 40 years ago and even then it wasn’t the segregated, preppie playground you are suggesting. There were plenty of public school graduates and a good number of people of color, including Black and Latinx students. I’m Black, was accepted to Stuyvesant, but went to a private school on scholarship. Many of the people at Harvard who had attended NYC public schools went to the Specialized High Schools. Others had attended other top-ranked NYC high schools even if they weren’t part of the Specialized High School group. Although I didn’t use my offer, I want to preserve the Specialized High Schools as an alternative for bright, ambitious kids.

  2. NYC public school parent says:

    “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”.

    How can Harvard be called “the best” school when it does not admit students based on their SAT scores? Harvard does not stack rank every applicant according to their SAT score and once all seats are filled (at around 1580 or higher, I’d guess), none of the “unqualified” applicants with SAT scores of 1550 or 1500 are admitted. Would defenders of that supposedly better admissions process be arguing that because all seats at Harvard were filled with applicants who scored 1580 and higher, all applicants with SAT scores below 1580 are “unqualified”? I can’t imagine those who defended the system arguing that if a student with an SAT score of 1500 were admitted, their mere presence would cause Harvard to have to adjust their teaching to make the classes easier for those “unqualified” students. And if Harvard kept pointing out that a student with a 1500 SAT was clearly inferior to the student with the 1580 SAT because 80 points separated them and you can’t expect their talented professors to have to teach such unqualified students, no one would buy it.

    According to the arguments you have been making, the fact that a significant number of students with SAT scores in the 1400s are allowed to be at Harvard with the students with 1580 SAT scores, must result in the classes being less “rigorous”.

    The 2019-20 Harvard University Common Data Set shows that 25% of the students admitted that year received an SAT Reading/writing score of 710 or below, with over 16% of the admitted students who submitted an SAT score receiving a verbal score below 700. Of the admitted students who submitted ACT scores, 25% of the ACT math scores were 31 or lower. But those scores are still perfectly fine scores. You still cite Harvard to refer to “the best” despite them having students who do not all receive the very highest SAT scores (and those SAT scores are even inflated because only the very highest test scores during multiple tries are included in the Common Data Set, whereas NYC 8th graders take the SHSAT only once.)

    I think your arguments citing the Olympics and Harvard weaken your case. In fact, the Olympic gymnastics committee chooses half the team based on factors other than their score in the Olympic trials. And it is comparing apples to oranges to compare a small Olympic team to a 4 year high school. It would make a lot more sense to compare the very few athletes chosen for the Olympic team to the very few students from a high school like Stuyvesant who are chosen to compete in a national math competition team.

    Wouldn’t the better analogy be to note that the superb athletes who make the Olympic team have spent years training in a variety of gyms where they have learned skills with dozens of motivated and talented athletes who did not make the Olympic team this year?

    Is your argument that the Olympic team would be better if 12 year old aspiring gymnasts were allowed to compete in a single competition, and only the 50 very highest scoring 12 year olds in that competition would be given spots at an elite training school together for the next 4 years? Is your argument that if the highest scoring 12 year olds in that single gymnastics competition were not training together but instead training in gyms with other talented and motivated 12 years, included those who will just be excellent college level gymnasts but won’t make the Olympic team, it would be a bad thing because it would mean those 12 year olds who scored highest would receive inferior training by having to be in gyms with talented gymnasts who didn’t receive one of the top 50 scores?

    I don’t understand the extreme focus on exclusion as a necessary goal that SHSAT-supporters make. They present a false choice — that a school can only be “the best” if it excludes all but the highest scoring students on a single exam, because the only other choice is to allow completely unqualified students to attend.

    But that isn’t the real choice. The choice is to have a school where students are chosen based on the results of a single exam, or a school where motivated and talented students are chosen based on a variety of other factors. There are certainly problems when a “variety of other factors” includes how much money your family donates or connections it has. And that should not be allowed. But the fact that another admissions process can be gamed by unethical people is a separate issue. It doesn’t excuse the false narrative being pushed that all students who don’t get one of the highest 5,000 SHSAT scores are unqualified for specialized high schools because being “qualified” is defined by a single day exam score. It doesn’t excuse the false narrative being pushed that the students with lower SHSAT scores who would be admitted would absolutely cause those schools to have to lower their standards because of the clear inferiority of those students with lower SHSAT scores.

    • garyrubinstein says:

      This post is just about how many specialized high schools there should be, what percent of students should attend them. I am going to suggest some other factors that can be used besides the SHSAT in a future post. Whatever the policy is, there will still be the same number of students excluded though unless you make more schools.

      • NYC public school parent says:

        I have enjoyed reading these posts, which are incredibly thoughtful and open minded. Your students are very lucky to have you as a teacher.

        But I have been surprised at how often you casually include comments where you seem to have internalized the false narrative that the SHSAT identifies students who are markedly more academically capable than the students who don’t score as high. In a previous post, you said “Surely there are 100 Black students who can thrive at Stuyvesant. Maybe they would need to catch up a bit. Maybe Stuyvesant could assign a little less homework to everyone and it could become a place where everyone has a little less stress.”

        I thought that comment revealed that despite your very good perspectives on this, you still seem to have internalized the false narrative that students with lower SHSAT scores below the cut off will be academically inferior to all or most of the students who score above the cut off, implying that the curriculum might have to be less rigorous to accommodate them. But as you confirmed in a previous reply to me, the reality is that only a small percentage of students, even at Stuyvesant, are taking math beyond Calculus, and the majority of students who do take Calculus are taking Calculus AB their senior year, just like many good (but not super advanced) math students do at high schools with a wider range of students. So I don’t understand why there seems to be an underlying assumption that capable and motivated students with lower SHSAT scores would struggle if they took the same less rigorous math track that most current students are taking.

        So I ask you to reconsider your perspective. Instead of looking at it as the curriculum having to be less rigorous if there were motivated and strong students at Stuyvesant with lower SHSAT scores, consider that those students admitted with lower SHSAT scores would be at least as academically qualified as the many students already at specialized high schools who aren’t taking those extremely advanced classes. No one is talking about admitting struggling students into specialized high schools. They are talking about admitting motivated students who perform above grade level.

        If people realized what the SHSAT exam really is, I doubt very much there would be all this handwringing about whether not admitting students who didn’t get one of the highest 5,000 SHSAT scores would result in “unqualified” students who would struggle and fail being in those schools unless the curriculum was made less rigorous for them. That false narrative isn’t made about students at Harvard where a student who gets a 1500 or a 1450 SAT is not viewed as “unqualified” to be at Harvard because the university could have filled the seats with students with SAT scores over 1580.

        It only serves to reinforce the false narrative if teachers at specialized high schools – especially ones as thoughtful as you are – keep casually making comments that reinforce the belief that admitting students with lower SHSAT scores is admitting students who would be markedly academically inferior to all of the students currently in specialized high schools or even most of the students currently in specialized high schools. Perhaps if you taught at Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech, both of which have a much wider range of SHSAT scores, you would be more aware of how many students with SHSAT scores far below the Stuyvesant cut off are still very high performing, and their performance in class reflects their motivation far more than their SHSAT score. Whether or not those students would thrive in the super advanced math classes at Stuyvesant that only a small percentage of students take anyway should not be relevant. The relevant question is whether they would thrive in the non-advanced math classes that the majority of students take, and I suspect you would be surprised at how many could. And some would struggle just like current students may sometimes struggle with a class that is more difficult for them.

        Students at Stuyvesant take another one-time only standardized test – the PSAT. And they have remarkable success with it — perhaps 25% get a high enough score to be National Merit Semifinalists. But I suspect that many excellent students who are very high performing at Stuyvesant are among the 75% who aren’t National Merit Semifinalists. Imagine if they had to hear over and over again that they weren’t as capable of doing advanced work as the students with the higher PSAT scores are. Imagine if the teachers believed that the PSAT score reflected the abilities of the students, and all juniors who scored below the cut off to be named a National Merit Semifinalist were banned from all advanced classes their senior year because their presence would mean that those classes could not be as rigorous anymore. Probably someone would speak up and say “hey, the students who scored below the cut off to be National Merit Semifinalists are also very smart and we should stop saying that their lower PSAT score proves they can’t handle the more advanced work that the 150 or 200 students who were named National Merit semifinalists can handle.” The SHSAT is just like the PSAT, with an arbitrary cut off each year based on where students fall in a stack ranking of their scores on that single exam. But with the PSAT, most people understand that many students with scores that fall below the PSAT semifinalist cut off can be just as academically strong as many of the students whose scores are above the cut off. With the PSAT, the public has not internalized the false narrative that all students who score below that cut-off would struggle in higher level classes. But they do seem to have internalized that false narrative about the SHSAT, and I don’t understand why.

      • garyrubinstein says:

        There are 4 more parts to this series and one will be about other things I think should be considered besides the SHSAT. I don’t think the SHSAT is totally irrelevant and I have used data to calculate that there is some correlation between success at Stuyvesant and score on the SHSAT. Maybe the SHSAT measures how much you want to go to Stuyvesant. So even if it was a completely irrelevant test where you were judged on how well you could say the alphabet backwards while blowing bubbles, well, some students will prepare for that type of test and if they are able to commit to that and they master a skill that they think is important to reaching their goals, then maybe they do have something that will help them be successful in that school. Still, I think there should be more factors. School recommendation seems pretty important. Then I was thinking there could be some kind of video lecture they watch and have to learn some new topic from it and then answer questions about it — that would be really hard to test prep from. An essay would be good too. I’m not sure how much more money it would cost to do that kind of assessment though I think it would lead to a better group of students (there would likely be a lot of overlap from the current group) and I’m not certain there would be much of a different demographic mix so if the goal is to achieve that, you’re going to need something like the 7% plan, which I will discuss in the next part.

    • SickOfTheIgnorance says:

      Harvard grad here. Harvard is a wonderful school with a deeply talented and varied student body, but “best” is a subjective term. For an extremely advanced math and science student, MIT might be the best school. For an arts-oriented person, RISD might be the best. This is not to say that Harvard doesn’t have terrifice STEM and arts students, but its atmosphere is not for everyone.

      Although high SAT scores do indicate intelligence and knowledge, Harvard has never relied exclusively on scores. It looks at the student’s scores, grades, activities, personality, and life experiences. It reads recommendations, does interviews, and doesn’t look at a student’s school record in a vacuum; it has an idea of the quality of the school based on past applications and the performance of accepted students. An A average at a school with a tough grading standard is not regarded the same as one from a school that engages in grade inflation. (The unevenness of the quality of NYC schools is why I didn’t think that taking the top 7% of all students across the system, a recent proposal, would work for the Specialized High Schools.) A dynamic student who doesn’t have absolutely the best academic record but otherwise impresses might be accepted if s/he has other accomplishments. On the first day, freshmen were told that had administrators wanted, every seat in the class could have been filled by a high school valedictorian with perfect scores. They didn’t want that because it would make for a very boring class. Perfect grades are impressive, but they can also reflect a refusal to take risks. All kinds of people become successes in the world, not just students with perfect scores.

      During the most recent conflict over what to do with the Specialized High Schools, Bill de Blasio irritatingly and disingenuously asked why they couldn’t adopt an admissions process like Harvard’s. He knew the answer because his son got into Yale and possibly applied to Harvard. He’s also a Columbia alum. It’s extremely expensive to use that kind of process and many students pay an admissions fee to pay for it. In NYC, in some years, almost 30K students have taken the SHSAT. There’s no way a public school system can devote the resources for a free Harvard-like admissions process for eight schools that admit only a minuscule part of the school population.

      Using one test isn’t the perfect method, but it is the most practicable and fairest one given the number of students who apply. “Holistic” applications, which take into account other factors, have not been found greatly to increase the number of low-income POC kids in the “selective” NYC high schools. Wealthier white parents with more savvy know how to present their kids to better advantage.

      The focus should be on improving K-8 and more immediately, offering test prep to kids who can benefit from it. The problem is that some are so far behind that a few months of intense tutoring isn’t enough to help them catch up.

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