This opinion piece was first published in the New York Daily News on Apr 02, 2019 by Maud Maron and Cressida Connolly
Mayor de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the Specialized High Schools Admissions test will hurt boys. Models project that if he succeeds in replacing the SHSAT with a grade- and state-test-based quota system, the percentage of boys at the Specialized High Schools will plummet from 54% to 34%, in a city where boys make up 52% of the student population.
That is at least 1,000 fewer seats for boys each year.
While the mayor’s plan to change admissions is explicitly designed to boost the number of black and Hispanic students, it has also disingenuously been sold as a blow for gender equity, since girls now hold slightly less than half the seats at Specialized High Schools.
No mention is made of the fact that boys are woefully underrepresented at the other top screened high schools in the city, nor is it acknowledged that in New York City, and nationwide, boys lag girls in all the important positive educational matrices — grades, graduation rates, college matriculation. Boys trail girls across socioeconomic and ethnic lines, and the poorer and more disadvantaged the community, the clearer the disparity.
A combination of hard and soft factors — the pressures of managing overcrowded classrooms, developmentally inappropriate expectations for extended periods of desk work matched with ever-dwindling opportunities for recess and phys-ed, too often put boys in an oppositional relationship with the school system and their overtaxed teachers.
In a system that prizes obedient stillness, boys inevitably wind up with lower grades and behavior scores — even very smart boys, like those who do well on the SHSAT. The conversation around equity, which casts tests in a negative light while ignoring evidence that bias plays a significant, and less controllable, role in grading, threatens to build this disparity into the architecture of the system.
The city’s school system weeds boys out of its accelerated programs early and often for years.
Kindergarten remains the primary entry point for elementary Gifted & Talented programs, requiring testing when boys are at a developmental disadvantage. This winnowing accelerates during admissions to the best middle schools which rely on both course grades, and poorly standardized behavior grades — which ding a child for such minor issues as being slow to pack up at the end of the day, failing to hear instructions the first time or fidgeting.
According to data compiled by the DOE and the federal Civil Rights Data Collection site, girls hold 60% to 70% of the seats in NYC’s most selective middle schools. Further, a good percentage of the boys admitted to these schools get in as Students with Disabilities. Without these seats, the percentage of boys drops to below 30% in the city’s most competitive middle schools. This year, the city’s largest community school district threw gasoline on the fire by ending school-specific testing and pumping up “behavior scores” to as much as 50% of the admissions rubrics.
Not surprisingly, the disparities continue into high school. In Manhattan’s largest district, powerhouse schools Baruch and Eleanor Roosevelt High Schools and highly sought-after citywide High Schools like Beacon, Townsend Harris, and Bard Queens and Bard Manhattan boys hover between 30% and 40%.
No admissions system is perfect, but in our educational microclimate, testing appears to slightly benefit boys, while grade-based rubrics put them at a disadvantage.
Jumaane Williams, our recently elected public advocate, argues that the single test system allowed him to earn a seat at Brooklyn Tech, despite struggling to demonstrate his full ability in the classroom. Then and now, the SHSAT entrance exam serves as a critical safety valve for bright boys in a system that otherwise relentlessly diverts them to weaker schools.