Last week, New York City students received their offers to the city’s eight specialized high schools. As has been the case in recent years, Asian students form over half of the admittees, followed by whites, Hispanics, and blacks. Critics often cite Stuyvesant High School, the most selective of the eight schools, as the example of how admissions—determined by scores on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT—are not racially proportionate. This year, Stuyvesant offered seats to 762 students: 489 went to Asians (64 percent), 158 to whites (21 percent), 51 seats to students of unknown ancestry (7 percent), 36 to multiracial students (5 percent), 20 to Hispanics (3 percent), and seven to blacks (1 percent). Stuyvesant admitted a higher percentage of Asians and a lower percentage of blacks than the average percentages for all the other specialized high schools.
The argument that the schools are problematic because they are not demographically proportional to the city’s population rests on two related claims: that the SHSAT isn’t a good measure of student performance, and that the test must be wrong if it doesn’t yield proportional outcomes.
The SHSAT clearly works, however. Its outcomes provide the proof: the schools populated by students selected by the test are the best STEM schools run by the New York City Department of Education. Try as it might, the DOE has created no admissions systems that result in better STEM schools. For more than 100 years, a single objective academic test has worked, generating talented alumni who have made tremendous contributions to the world. The specialized high schools have graduated 14 eventual Nobel Laureates in STEM—more than what most countries can claim. And because of the recent expansion of the Discovery Program backdoor, under which disadvantaged students who miss the SHSAT cutoff score gain admission via teacher recommendation and completion of a summer catch-up program, we now have evidence that students admitted by the SHSAT perform significantly better than students admitted otherwise.
By design, tests should not aim for proportional outcomes. If proportionality were the goal, then everything now measured by tests or contests—from blood tests to pilot evaluations to NBA tryouts to musical auditions—should be done instead by simple lottery. Tests are intended to provide information, not to produce proportional demographic outcomes. And this is exactly what the SHSAT does.
Once you have measured performance, then you can begin to consider why the outcomes are whatever they happen to be. If nonproportional outcomes bother you, then you have three questions to consider: is the test administered in the same way to all takers, what can be done to improve learning for all, and does proportionality matter?
As to the first question: the SHSAT is identity-blind, meaning that it is administered to all students in the same way. As to the second: How do we improve learning for all? In aggregate, students who perform better have usually spent more time and effort on academic pursuits than those who perform worse. That should be self-evident: it’s not just the time spent studying, but the interest, self-discipline, commitment, and determination that gets the students to spend such time. Indeed, the Brookings Institute conducted a study that found that Asians on average spend twice as much time on homework as whites, and four times as much time as blacks. There is a simple lesson from this.
What we need to do to improve learning for all groups has been clear for decades. The city’s public schools have pursued a race downward, however, with declining test scores, rampant grade inflation, and a dismantling of basic education in favor of ideological indoctrination. Time is wasted not only on pitting our so-called oppressor and oppressed students against one another but also on a kind of learned helplessness and loss of agency. The return of true Gifted and Talented programs in every district, with strong academics all around, would enable children to perform better on the SHSAT. The city council, state assembly, and state senate were all offered good legislation that would mandate these programs, with multiple entry points and different admissions criteria that would help nurture students, but the city instead put in place a flawed, in-name-only Gifted and Talented program. There has also been discussion of opening more top-notch academic high schools that admit by policies other than a single test, especially for non-STEM; these should be piloted.
Does proportionality matter? Progressive critics insist that it does, and they demand proportionality by race, ethnicity, and sex (but only in areas where proportionality suits them). Race, ethnicity, and sex, however, are attributes, not achievements. The SHSAT is deliberately structured to disregard attributes, to measure only potential for achievements, and as we’ve seen, it does so exceptionally well. The test rewards merit. Proportionality, by contrast, rewards not merit but the checking of a box.
The SHSAT works, as do New York City’s outstanding specialized high schools. Let’s congratulate the kids who got in, teach more kids to replicate their hard work and ethics, and grow better schools throughout New York City.
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