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The Next Woke Push: Abolishing Admissions Requirements In America’s Best High Schools

(Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images)

Brianna Lyman News and Commentary Writer
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Top public schools across the nation often use admissions tests in some form to weed through their large admissions pool, but some are changing the way they admit students in an effort to create a more diverse student population.

New York City public schools are notably “segregated,” according to the New York City Council. In the 2018-2019 academic year, black and Hispanic students made up 67% of the city’s students, according to the city council. Black and Latino students, however, only made up roughly 10% of specialized high school students during the same academic year.

Only seven black students were offered admission to Stuyvesant High School in 2019, despite there being 895 open freshman slots, The New York Times reported. At Bronx High School of Science, only 12 offers were made to black students that same year, according to the report.

To combat these inequalities, Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in December that the city would change how selective middle and high schools admit their students. The city has eight specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science which all require students take the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT). The standardized test will remain in place, NY1 reported.

The city, however, paused screening prospective middle school students using academic records, auditions, or other screening assessments to evaluate and admit them through 2021. If there is a surplus of applicants, the city will reportedly use a lottery system and select students at random.

High schools will still use academic screenings but will instead use scores from the previous academic year since public schools did not give grades the past school year due to the coronavirus, according to NY1. Geographic priorities have also been scrapped for high school students, a process which gave preference to students who lived within the same district in which the school is located.

De Blasio said the changes would “ensure there is fairness for our kids.”

School Chancellor Richard A. Carranza also said the changes would make the city “fairer.”

“These adjustments to middle and high school admissions respond to the challenges we face as a system. Simplifying the process and making our city fairer is the right thing to do for our students, families and schools.”

But John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University and contributing writer at The Atlantic, said that rather than scrapping the test, schools should instead focus on helping minority students excel at taking it.

“What about the more local and pragmatic solution of helping black kids do better on the test?” McWhorter asked in an op-ed. “This position isn’t nonexistent, but it’s considered contrarian, unexpected, or even plutocratic and backwards.”

McWhorter argues the focus should not be “access” to the schools but preparation to get into the schools.

“Admitting students unquestionably less well-prepared than today’s cohort will compromise the overall quality of the schools,” McWhorter argued. “Some might consider that outcome just deserts for those favored in a society riven with inequality, and perhaps even as a constructive wake-up call to them.”

“However, we must consider that this lowered quality would apply also to the black kids newly admitted under these lowered standards; the city would admit these students into elite schools no longer as rigorous as they once were,” McWhorter continued.

McWhorter argued that instead of scrapping the test, the city should do a better job promulgating the city’s free test-preparation classes. He also advocates for creating more gifted-and-talented programs for minority students in “heavily black public schools.”

Former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, who is black, shared a similar view to McWhorter, throwing his money and support behind a campaign opposing de Blasio’s plan to scrap the test and instead focusing on ways to help minority students actually get into the school.

Parsons supports introducing more gifted and talented programs, more test preparation and increasing the amount of elite schools, according to The New York Times (NYT).

“Greater diversity in our schools is an imperative, but the battle cannot be won simply by lowering standards,” Parsons said, according to the NYT. “I’m backing this effort because I believe we must do the hard work of improving our public education system so that all children have the opportunity to realize their full academic potential.”

But New York City isn’t alone in the struggle to get racial equity among students — or in facing backlash.

Parents at Fairfax County Public Schools sued the district after they set new admission policies for the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which is ranked as the country’s best public high school, according to the Associated Press (AP).

The board scrapped a standardized admissions test to address the lack of diversity among students, according to the report.

Parents argue the new policy will cause the school to lose its elite status if it stops accepting the most academically qualified students which is measured by the tests, according to the report.

But Fairfax County Circuit Court Jude John Tran denied a preliminary injunction sought by the parents arguing that the Virginia Department of Education has no specific regulation requiring “specific measures for selecting candidates for admission to a governor’s school.” Tran added he was not convinced that eliminating the test would diminish educational quality.

A similar battle is raging in San Francisco, where Lowell High School – one of the top rated public schools – decided they would no longer admit students based on grades and test scores but rather use a random lottery system should the school board approve the measure, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Four board members, which constitutes a majority, have already signed the proposal which makes it likely to pass, according to the report. (RELATED: San Francisco Board Of Education’s Document Arguing For School Renamings Is Riddled With Historical Errors)

“This is a response to ongoing racist attacks in our schools that must be addressed,” board President Gabriela López said, according to the report.

Opponents of the proposal argue that the high school offers high-achieving students a public choice that competes with private schools. Late in 2020, families and alumni criticized the board’s decision to suspend Lowell’s competitive admission policy because of a lack of grades and test scores due to the pandemic and social distance learning, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Lowell High School’s previous admissions process created a school that does not reflect the diversity of SFUSD students and perpetuates segregation and exclusion,” the resolution stated, according to the report.

The resolution reportedly notes that should the school return to the old admissions policy it would violate a state law that prevents comprehensive high schools from using selective enrollment, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The district previously said since the policy predated the law they were not subject to its enforcement, according to the report.