Every student needs a fair shot at specialized high schools

Charter schools can work and right now are changing students' life trajectories, even if they're out of fashion on the political left.
Charter schools can work and right now are changing students’ life trajectories, even if they’re out of fashion on the political left. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Chris Jackson

Next month, NYC’s eighth-grade public school students will learn where they will be going to high school. It’s the conclusion of a lengthy process seventh-graders are now just beginning by starting to prepare for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test.

The test — the only path to eight of the city’s top high schools, including Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech — and the admissions process that goes with it, have long met deep criticisms and concerns. Once again, the city is revising the exam. Widening the net of admissions without abandoning objective criteria is key.

The chief concern is why the elite schools lack economic and demographic diversity, particularly among black and Hispanic students. Last year, nine black students were admitted to Stuyvesant, zero to Staten Island Technical High School. NYC education officials hope new changes will broaden the applicant pool without dimishing the rigor of the test. Students taking the exam this fall will no longer have to unscramble paragraphs or work through logical reasoning puzzles. Instead, they’ll answer grammar-related questions that require revision. Some math questions will not have multiple-choice answers, a way to cut the benefits of pricey prep lessons.

The quick turnaround in starting the new test this fall makes it harder for middle schools to prepare current seventh-grade students. But it also means there is less time for those in the know and willing to pay for lessons to game the system. City officials have to make sure every school has resources to prepare its students, and that everyone knows what to expect.

But fixing a system with massive disparities goes beyond changing a test. Real change will come when the city makes sure every middle-school student can take advantage of all high school options, including the specialized exam, and receives a solid educational foundation. It will come only when the city does more to reach top students of every race and ethnicity and pushes him or her to the top of the high school heap. And it’ll come when improvements are made and attention is paid to middle schools citywide, so all students can strive for the best NYC offers.