NYC Test High Schools

Mayor Bill De Blasio is once again pushing a plan to eliminate a single test as the basis for admission to New York City’s elite academic high schools. Such a plan has failed in the past because so many State Senators and Assembly people attended those high schools and remember them fondly. That may change this time around because more and more legislators were on the outside looking in and don’t understand why white and Asian students should get the overwhelming number of seats. It doesn’t seem equal or fair or just. Without taking sides on the dispute, but not leaving the issue to whether people do or do not remember their high school experience fondly, I would like to review the concepts that have been rolled out and help to restore them from being the cliches they have become in educational discourse to being legitimate terms of analysis.

First off, do the tests promote equality or its opposite? They promote equality in that each of the candidates for admission are being judged individually on the basis of this single performance. They are competing against one another rather than as a member of a category, whether that is race or religion or gender. In that sense, “equal” means “objective”. Only the test results count and any number of extraneous considerations, including whether a parent has attended the school or made a contribution or whether the child came from a poor family or not, are held to be of no account, all of that very long list of considerations ruled out except for the central one of intellectual aptitude. The problem with the test arises when it becomes recognized that one of these extraneous categories should not be neglected and is more important than the perhaps overvalued category of intellectual aptitude, quickness on tests not to be regarded as the only source of merit when diligence in studies or motivation shown in other ways may also be important. Why the tyranny of this test which pits one student against another and where students who do not test well suffer? This is, of course, a self-serving argument for non academic achievers because we don’t try to compensate for students who try out for sports who can’t deal with the pressure of competition. Maybe it is that there is nothing essential to identity in not becoming a basketball player, though I don’t know if that is the case for the subset of people who see themselves as athletes, but there is something essential to identity about being regarded as relatively dumb or smart and people shouldn’t be classified as the latter, just as girls should not be identified as ugly even if we (used to) identify pretty girls as being such.

Then there is the question of “fairness”, which means some balance has been struck in so that each side receives something of similar value in an exchange, never mind how one establishes the value of anything other than by the willingness of people to exchange it, Say’s Law that every item finds its price not having been repealed. What have competitors given up in exchange for doing well on the tests? Partly and maybe mostly it is just the exercise of natural talent, the admissions test being something like an I Q test, in which case the competitors are offering a display of their rare talents, just how rare they are being the quality tested. But there is also a measure of industriousness which is being traded for a good grade on the entrance exam. The Asian kids take cram courses to perfect their skills and there is no reason African-American and Hispanic kids couldn’t participate in school sponsored, no cost, cram courses. At my junior high school, back in the Fifties, a math teacher gave a once a week after school prep course for several weeks for all those interested in taking the test. But when I suggested to my college students (just about all white) that they could have improved their SAT scores by a hundred points or so simply by going through one of those booklets of old SAT exams in the week before the exam, they asked why anyone would want to spend more time on a test than they had to. Well, some do and some don’t, and it shows up in the results. Don’t blame the test for the cultural characteristics of test takers. You can’t make people learn if they don’t want to by making excuses about lack of resources. The reason middle schools don’t offer much math and science to prepare kids for the test is that the kids aren’t interested.

Which brings us to the question of justice, which usually means what person or group is going to suffer so as to make things better for another person or group. The murderer suffers so as to give closure to the aggrieved or to give solace to the state. DeBlasio’s Commissioner of Education put his view succinctly when he said that one ethnic group (by which he meant Asian-American students), don’t own the test high schools. No one ever claimed that they did. The test schools have done well by different groups of immigrants. In my time, they were overwhelmingly Jewish, with very few Italians or Irish. Nowadays, they are overwhelmingly Asian, with few African Americans or Hispanics. What getting rid of the test is designed to do is increase African-American and Hispanic enrollment even if that means a substantial decrease in the number of slots available for Asian Americans to compete for, which is a hardship and a disservice to the Asian American students. They bear the brunt of the pain for the imposition of justice. The new measures could be defended on their own merits. They do provide something the test does not: the inclusion of a school record even if the students who pass the new criteria are not as gifted as the people they displace. They may be better people, but displacement it surely is and, in fact, the new criteria are not defended as a superior set of procedures, as a more just way to evaluate candidates, but in terms of what they will accomplish. They are justified not as the basis for opportunities but on the basis of outcomes: who gets into the school, and so they are clearly discriminatory rather than indifferent to extraneous criteria for admission.

Consider the larger point, which is the function of these schools for young people and for the city and country as a whole. Defenders of the test schools argue that the teachers and the curricula of the test schools are not particularly outstanding. I can attest to that. The argument is that the schools bring together a lot of bright kids to educate one another and set standards for one another, and I can certainly attest to that. Students at the schools are very grade conscious and seem to walk around with their GPAs inked onto their foreheads. Maybe that is not a good way to be. It trails you for life, which is also what people say about how you did at Harvard Law School where it can take decades to get over where you stood in your class. The flip side is that these kids a the test high schools are not only bright but have among them more than their fair share of nerds. I remember that going to Bronx Science put me in touch with people like myself, somewhat awkward and gauche, but also possessed of what I thought were my somewhat peculiar interests in space travel and in American history, neither of which I could discuss with junior high school buddies. So Science was a kind of refuge for which we were all grateful in spite of the pressure to succeed we were under there which led to many a sleepless night and upset stomach and jealous feelings between friends. I never worked as hard or against more competition either in college or graduate school.

I have heard it argued that all the test high schools should simply be abolished. That would result in some number of gifted students being enrolled in a number of community hgh schools of the sort that persisted until the school reforms of the Seventies and the Eighties. That core of students could be the relatively autonomous group of conscientious students that could run the yearbook and the student government and take hard courses together and would have a leavening effect on the rest of the student body. But would it? Most American high schools are still dominated by their jocks and the special exam high schools were implemented so as to provide a different basis for excellence. Should there not be one place where the academically talented could flourish? And as for the leavening function, which says that passing in the halls will rub off the characteristics of the college prep kids onto the others, that is not likely to happen. We have for fifty years now tried to find ways of decreasing the gap between African-American and Hispanic as opposed to white and Asian achievement and we haven't found a way to do so unless you raise the annual expenditure per pupil to $50,000 a year, which is done in some private and philanthropically funded schools, where class sizes go down to ten. Harlem Children’s Zone, has extensive after class programs and pays social workers to intervene with families, but 87% of its budget is supplied by private donors. (The per pupil expenditure in New York State public schools is about $21,000, although that does not include the costs of buildings and real estate.) It has been suggested to me that a cheaper solution is expanding Teaching For America, which recruits Ivy League graduates to teach for two or three years rather than for a lifetime. That is a promising approach that does not require politically prohibitive expenditures, but teacher’s unions are against it because it sees teaching as only a temporary, age-graded, pre-career, rather than a lifetime employment. All in all, not having dealt with educational disparities due to race over the past fifty years is one of the great failures of liberal society, which was so successful with regard to health care and labor relations and old age and equal accommodations.

But there is an argument for diversity in the test high school model, though it is not often the subject of comment. When I got to college, I took a course in physics with a professor who would become world renowned. On the first day of class, a new acquaintance came up to me and said he was uncomfortable and distracted. He pointed to two girls from Barnard who were sitting in the back rows. I didn’t say “Get over it” though perhaps a more advanced consciousness might have. I was just amazed because I had been rubbing elbows and not much else with a number of very able young women throughout high school and so didn’t need to be taught that girls could be smart and imaginative and articulate. That has stayed with me all my life. I can’t say that in the present instance it is not the case that Asian girls come to understand their own powers and educate their male Asian peers about them in the same way that came so naturally in the earlier iteration. Coeducation in high school has always been one of its best features and I don’t want to see that sacrificed on the altar of racial quotas. Now it may be that African-American and Hispanic young women would profit from the same effect, but since the only thing we know that makes for such a quality pool of women is the present selection process, I don’t want to mess with that. Consider what you are getting rid of before you get rid of it.