From Gotham Gazette by Katrina Shakarian:
In New York City they're specialized high schools, in Boston exam schools, and in Chicago they're known as selective enrollment high schools. Despite the different labels, these schools are all part of a small group of elite public high schools in the United States. They utilize special exams, and in all cases but New York City, additional measures of merit and aptitude to selectively admit students.

"In a country with more than 20,000 public high schools, we found just 165 of these schools, known as exam schools," wrote Chester E. Finn, Jr., co-author of "Exam Schools," in a 2012 New York Times op-ed. "They educate about 1 percent of students. Nineteen states have none. Only three big cities have more than five such schools (Los Angeles has zero)."

As is the case with all public resources that are both scarce and coveted, the processes by which students gain admission to these institutions are highly scrutinized and subject to the ebb and flow of legislative and legal tides across the nation.

In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and at the peak of nationwide efforts to desegregate school districts, racial quotas were part of the admissions policies to selective enrollment high schools in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. The quotas in all three cities were abandoned, beginning in the mid-90s, because of lawsuits challenging their constitutionality or because court-ordered desegregation decrees were simply lifted.

Here in New York City, much of the decades-old conversation about the city's specialized schools centers around the state's test-only mandate for entry. "The test only policy is a real anomaly," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank. "New York is the only city that does it."

On October 25th and 26th, thousands of eighth graders sat for the exam, with hopes of being admitted to one of New York City's eight test admissions-based public high schools. Students vying for seats in the 2015-2016 freshman cohort may be the last to take the multiple choice exam in its current form. The de Blasio administration is on the verge of partnering with a new company to facilitate the specialized high schools testing program. The City's recent request for proposals (RFP) from prospective vendors includes the prospect of adding an essay to the exam, in addition to aligning its content with the common core and translating it into several languages.

Tweaking the exam is about all the power that the City can exercise over the admissions policy to its specialized high schools. The test-only mandate for entry has been enshrined in state law since 1972. De Blasio, though, spoke about altering the admissions process to these schools as a mayoral candidate and has followed up similarly since taking office. He has expressed a belief that a single multiple choice test can not adequately measure a young person's potential and a vision for more diverse student bodies at these elite schools.

The notion of changing the admissions criteria has caused quite a stir. The local debate is largely two fold: how to make the demographics of the schools' student bodies more reflective of the school system as a whole, and, how to maintain fair and objective metrics for entry that uphold the schools' rigorous learning environments.

The specialized schools' demographics as compared to the school system as a whole are startling: black and Latino students make up roughly 70% of the New York City school system, but were offered just 12% of seats in the 2014-2015 freshman classes at the specialized high schools.

"It remains very hard to maximize [these] two goals - academic achievement and equity - that are strongly related, " said Professor Floyd Hammack of New York University, who authored "Paths to Legislation or Litigation for Educational Privilege: New York and San Francisco Compared," an article comparing the historical trajectories of admissions to selective schools in the two cities.

In New York, there are varying opinions on the best way to tackle the dichotomy referenced by Hammack. Last June, for example, New York State legislators introduced a bill that would expand admissions criteria to include grade point average, attendance records, and scores on an exam that includes an essay. Although the bill did not gain much traction in the Legislature, the de Blasio administration and the city's teachers union, the UFT, have expressed support for the proposal.

Conversely, others like former State Assembly Member Michael Benjamin, an alumnus of (specialized) Bronx High School of Science, are firm proponents of the test-only system. At a recent panel event in Queens, Benjamin said that the City should focus on raising student achievement in middle schools, ensuring that high-potential students are identified early on and provided with ample opportunities to prepare for the exam.

"The issue is preparation to take the exam," Benjamin told Gotham Gazette. "We're not preparing the black and Hispanic kids in those low-performing middle schools to do well. We're not identifying the smart kids early on and giving them the support that they need."

Dr. Elissa Brown of Hunter College, a specialist in gifted education, also believes that "doing away with an admissions test is not the answer." She said that "using an admissions test for specialized high schools is appropriate because it is objective, fair, and administered in a standardized fashion."

A writing measure could be introduced, she noted. "For example, Hunter College High School employs a writing component as part of its admissions testing and has found it to be a valuable addition. However, GPAs are not an accurate predictor of ability and would introduce teacher bias," explained Brown. Hunter College High School is not one of the city's "specialized high schools." It is, however, an elite public high school, with its own selective admissions process.

As policymakers consider what, if anything, to do about the admissions process to the city's specialized schools and advocates seek to influence that decision-making, it is instructive to look at policies that other cities have in place for admission to their selective schools. While New York struggles with diversity at its special high schools and reconsiders its test-only admission system, Boston and Chicago have experienced parallel predicaments with very different outcomes.

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