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Testimony regarding the admissions process for NYC's specialized high schools


Testimony before the New York State Assembly Education Committee

Good afternoon. My name is Janella Hinds and I am the UFT’S Vice President for Academic High Schools. On behalf of the union’s more than 190,000 members, I would like to thank the Chairman of the New York State Assembly Education Committee Michael Benedetto for holding today’s hearing on proposed changes to the admission process for eight of New York City’s specialized high schools:  The Bronx High School of Science; The Brooklyn Latin School; Brooklyn Technical High School; High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at the City College of New York; High School of American Studies at Lehman College; Queens High School for the Science at York College; Staten Island Technical High School and Stuyvesant High School.

From the outset, let’s all acknowledge the complexity of addressing integration, true representation, inclusion and the equitable distribution of resources across all communities. New York City’s public schools did not evolve overnight into a convoluted system with alarming degrees of segregation. There are schools with student rosters lacking the representation of New York City. Unfortunately, this problem won’t be solved quickly. The segregation we see in the largest school district in the nation is largely born from the economic and racial segregation of our city. The gaps in representation are wide-ranging and proposals offered by our members and advocacy groups are controversial to some.

But despite the challenges, students, their parents and educators stand ready to engage in this hard work. Some of the key proposed revisions to the admissions policies — in particular using the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the sole determinant for admission — must be authorized via state education law. We’re here today to encourage you to join in. We can do better. Let change begin today.

UFT Specialized High School Task Force

For over a decade the annual release of the admissions offers for the specialized high schools has generated widespread press and recriminations. In 2012, the outcry intensified when the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a group of co-plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit determined that the use of a single standardized test for admittance resulted in lack of equal opportunity and access to the eight specialized high schools, which constituted a civil rights violation. The lawsuit argued that “relying on a single test for admission while excluding multiple measures of student knowledge and potential is a distortion and subversion of the meaning of merit.”[1]

Also in 2012, the UFT took action, inviting educators from the eight schools at the center of the case to participate in a task force that would analyze the admission policies for their schools. The union’s 3,400-member Delegate Assembly empowered the UFT Specialized High School Task Force to:

  • seek out the development of a more fair, equitable and appropriate assessment;
  • explore expanding the Discovery program to all eight specialized high schools and the establishment of other initiatives intended to increase admission of underrepresented students in New York City’s specialized high schools;
  • create an assessment of student ability that takes into account the diverse expressions of academic growth and achievement that may be measured;
  • develop a mechanism guaranteeing seats for high achieving middle school students who have met a minimum score on the test and have ranked as the highest achieving students in their district middle schools; and
  • explore how segregation persists and is promulgated by admissions policies in all NYC DOE schools, including elementary and middle schools.[2]

Teachers at the specialized high schools around the city began speaking with their colleagues at their home schools as well as with UFT peers. In both formal and informal settings, these educators gradually recognized that they had similar concerns and had noted anecdotally what a review of the data would later validate. The specialized high schools’ decreasing racial and socioeconomic diversity, coupled with a rapidly expanding test-prep industry, seemed to grant greater access to students able to attend intensive test preparation institutes and programs while limiting access to those who lack that extra boost of sustained test preparation.[3]

The UFT was on record criticizing and challenging the validity of a single test as the sole criteria for high stakes decisions – such as entrance to early elementary gifted and talented programs or specialized high schools. At the heart of the task force’s work was the desire to bring educators into a conversation about the validity of a single admissions test and how to broaden the definition of academic success. Over the course of 18 months, the group developed a set of recommendations on how to move forward incorporating multiple measures and outreach initiatives that would ultimately reverse course on the egregious lack of diversity. We released our report with policy recommendations, “Redefining High Performance for Entrance Into Specialized High Schools — Making the Case for Change,” in March 2014.

Expand and enhance admissions policies

At its conclusion, the taskforce recommended that rather than eliminating the SHSAT test altogether; it should be one of several measures used to determine entry into the specialized high schools. However, moving forward, the test should be revised and aligned to what students study in middle school and what they’re expected to achieve in these schools.

Additionally, in order to better expand and enhance the admissions policies of New York City’s specialized high schools, the task force’s recommendations include:

  • Power Score admissions path — Creating language to broaden the definition of what constitutes the highest-performing scholars. Specifically, that there be a “power score” pathway (using a combination of grades, state exam scores, attendance and some version of a revised SHSAT aligned to the curriculum) for entrance into a specialized high school;
  • Mandate the Discovery Program — Changing the Discovery program for applicants who narrowly miss the "admit score" to make it mandatory for all schools, resulting in an intensive summer program for scholars; and aligning each Discovery program with the skills needed for incoming 9th-graders specific to each school;
  • Top Performer admissions path — Target the top-performing 8th-graders at each and every New York City middle school, with the goal of offering a proportional number of seats to these students depending on the size of the school. The “Top Performer” ranking would be determined by the grade point average; and
  • Online test prep and pre-registration for all 8th grade students — Leveling the playing field by providing free electronic preparation materials and other preparation methods for the entrance exam, as well as registering all students for the specialized high school admissions process, along with an easy opt-out.

Our recommendations hold up.

We support the de Blasio administration’s effort to broaden the admission criteria. The UFT supports the current changes to the Discovery program so that by 2020, 20 percent of the ninth-grade seats in every specialized high school will be set aside for Discovery students, according to city education officials. Currently, only 5 percent of the 4,000 ninth-grade seats are filled through Discovery.

Students are currently eligible for the Discovery program if they meet the city Education Department’s criteria for being disadvantaged. But under the new plan, only students who attended high-poverty middle schools will be accepted.

The issue of equity and access in our city’s public high schools is far broader than these eight schools and the more than 15,000 students who attend them. We have 420 high schools with nearly 297,000 students citywide. The admissions process across the board at all high schools needs an in-depth review and improvement.

More high school success stories

We do a disservice to our students and their parents when we reinforce the narrative that the eight specialized high schools are the only great high schools in the city and the only vehicle through which our graduates will go on to prestigious colleges and universities, securing coveted credentials. There are successful schools that are hidden jewels, where educators, students, and community work together to empower students academically and socially. Those schools, unfortunately, are left to their own devices to promote and support themselves in an environment that focuses too heavily on eight excellent academic high schools. 

New Dorp High School in Staten Island with over 3,200 students is a comprehensive high school featuring small learning communities, an extensive range of college extension course, AP courses, CTE certification and wide-ranging options for sports and extra-curricular pursuits. Its outstanding college readiness collaboration with the College of Staten Island, St. John's University and Wagner College, and 30,000 Degree Partnership, rigorously prepares graduates for competitive higher learning opportunities.

Francis Lewis High School is a large diverse high school in Queens with options for students who live in the neighborhood and beyond. With nearly 4,500 students, this high school boasts 18 advanced placement courses ranging from calculus and physics to Japanese and macroeconomics to English Literature and Composition and Art History, to name a few. There are specialized programs, including: Science Research, Math Research and Robotics, University Scholars and its Jacob Javits Law Academy.

With the number of newcomers to our city it makes sense to have schools where language is central to the curricula. The Marble Hill HS for International Studies, in the Bronx stands out as a model for designing a school for international students. With each incoming class composed of 50% multilingual learners and 50% mainstream students, with a 14:1 teacher to student ratio, Marble Hill achieves a level of diversity wholly different from many other schools. In addition to its full offering of advanced placement courses, mentoring and rigorous 4-year math requirement, mainstream students must complete three years of a foreign language. The school also offers international exchange opportunities for students. Additionally, students can demonstrate their mastery of their coursework through semester portfolios. 

Brooklyn’s High School for Public Service with its robust partnerships, sports and drama programs offers its more than 450 students a rich academic experience. There are specialized courses ranging from Social Sciences/Constitutional Law and Medical Science, to Public Speaking, Forensic Science, and Sci-Fi Literature. As its name indicates, more than competitive coursework, the emphasis on public service connects students to the broader community.

Different pathways exist for excellent technical education. At the Gateway Manhattan Urban Assembly Gateway, the school’s 445 students are offered state-of-the-art CTE programs in specialties ranging from Digital Design & Animation and Software Engineering, to, Cybersecurity, Photoshop and Javascript. Students can graduate with industry certification and compete successfully in the technology marketplace. The CUNY College Now prepares students for higher education and the work-based learning partnerships prove invaluable in building their professional experience.

Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, offers outstanding opportunities for students pursuing a career in the arts. But students should consider The Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, and the Academy for Careers in Television and Film in Queens. Or for those students who are still exploring their fields of interest, New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn enrolls more than 3,500 students and offers a vast array of technical, academic, Advanced Placement and arts and design courses.

In a city of this size we should have a variety of comprehensive high schools with a range of opportunities for students to explore.

It’s time to focus on all academic high schools

We need a top to bottom retooling of the DOE’s approach to high school enrollment, from its application process to the complex placement algorithm, from its screened and specialized high schools admissions to the vestiges of the small school era. The UFT supports the creation of more high schools and more academically rigorous programs, particularly in Queens, where existing high schools are overcrowded, and there aren’t enough seats. 

As I wrote in in an op-ed article in March of this year, “No discussion about segregation in New York City's public schools can be complete without reference to one of its most pervasive forms —academic isolation. The Department of Education — despite its own study showing the risks – has concentrated thousands of struggling high school students in about 100 buildings and programs. This concentration of high-needs students is a product of current screening procedures and the city's complicated high school assignment process. It directly contradicts the findings that when high-need students are concentrated in high schools, it becomes much more difficult for all students to succeed and graduate.”[4]

Critically, the UFT is committed to providing all students a rich academic high school environment. Larger high schools can better provide this breadth of offerings and are better suited to serve a range of academic standings and interests. The union supports the “ed-option” formula – one that ensures schools will admit students from across the achievement spectrum. In our view, this would go a long way to reduce screening barriers at the hundreds of high schools that currently employ screening criteria. We would in fact advocate for the bold step – to put an end to high school screens – which tend to penalize students from poorer or immigrant families and to stratify students in schools based on test scores.

We would recommend the Chancellor mandate that fully serving an academically diverse population as a significant measure of a principal’s success. While the systemic disparities entrenched in our high school admissions cannot be laid at the feet of school leaders, this could go a long way to incentivize principals who have traditionally been rated largely on Regents passing rates and graduation metrics.

Closing thoughts

The UFT is committed to broadening the definition of academic success and creating rich high school and middle school experiences for all students in all communities. We commend the work done by individual community school districts and the spotlight Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza have given this issue. We are also grateful for the City Council’s stewardship over these issues that have challenged our school system for decades and their continued championing of equity, fair representation and greater accountability from the Department of Education. We appreciate the passionate engagement of the members of the Senate and Assembly on specialized high schools and we look forward to working with you towards meaningful solutions. We also encourage all stakeholders to explore the larger issue of rampant academic segregation in more than 20 percent of the city’s current 420 high schools.

Admissions to the eight specialized high schools is based on how well a 13 year-old scores on a single high-stakes test, given on a single day. This approach to admissions has been rejected by educators and researchers across the country because the process does not capture the breadth and depth of student achievement that we want represented in these schools. It is, according to statisticians and researchers, a process open to test prep.

The proponents of these standardized tests for entrance to competitive screened schools allege the tests are a reliable, objective measure that reinforce the schools’ success and set the standard for academic achievement; ultimately, it’s not broke, so no need to fix it. We respectfully and vehemently disagree.

Veteran English teacher Pian Wong-Rockfeld, a member of our task force who has taught for 12 of her 15 years at the High School for American Studies in the Bronx, one of the city’s eight specialized high schools, provides context for what a single multiple choice test misses in identifying talented writers and thinkers. “Who are the most qualified students who are the ones who will be most successful? Is it capturing all the ways in which a student can be academically strong? The single test doesn’t assess how hard a student works, or doesn’t assess creative or independent thinking that you would need to thrive at our schools. No, overall the test does not capture all the skills a student needs to be successful at our schools.” Even with changes to the tests, the scoring system remains the same resulting in an advantage to those who’ve benefited from test prep. Ultimately in the words of our member, “Just because it is objective, doesn’t mean that it’s fair.”

Our scholars deserve more. Their parents expect more. Educators long to give more. To be clear, the UFT does not support the creation of more specialized high schools, as a remedy to these serious concerns. We need to create more large comprehensive high school options for students, particularly in Queens, which lacks an appropriate number of seats, and we need to eliminate the SHSAT as the sole admissions criteria for the 8 existing specialized high schools. This would truly energize the New York City high school landscape.


[1] The Meaning of Merit: Alternatives for Determining Admission to New York City’s Specialized High Schools, the Community Service Society and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, October 2013

[2] A Resolution on Specialized High School Admissions Policies, United Federation of Teachers, Delegate Assembly, December 12, 2012

[3] Redefining High Performance for Entrance Into Specialized High Schools — Making the Case for Change, Policy recommendations by the United Federation of Teachers Specialized High School Task Force, March 2014

[4] “Academic segregation hurts public schools,” Janella Hinds, UFT Vice President, The Chief, March 19, 2019, Op-Ed