Members of PLACE staged a rally at City Hall in October to advocate for the SHSAT. (Photo: Jasmine Photo)

One month after Sierra Fraser participated in a demonstration against New York City’s high school admissions testing, she’s visibly distressed about the experience.

“It was rough,” the 18-year-old college freshman tells me over Zoom, her hair sitting atop her head in a tight bun and her voice quickly turning from quiet and composed to loud and frustrated. Sierra adjusts her glasses and looks up at the ceiling: “We were chanting ‘Black students matter,’ and they yelled back ‘All students matter.’ Their signs said ‘Education for all,’ but how can you say ‘Education for all’ and not support a more inclusive education system for Black and brown students?”

Sierra, a native New Yorker, is wearing a black t-shirt that reads “Student Voice over Parent Fear.” It’s the same t-shirt she wore to the rally back in October, when she and a handful of other activists from a group called Teens Take Charge stood on the steps of City Hall in lower Manhattan and faced off against a significantly larger group of parents from a rival group called PLACE. Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education is a group of mostly Asian parents who support, among other policies, a merit-based system for high school admissions. Carrying banners and wearing expressions of aggravation, members of the group walked up to a podium one by one, expressing their long list of frustrations with New York City’s public schools.

Their most urgent complaint– and a fundamental disagreement between PLACE and Teens Take Charge– was about the SHSAT, a standardized test thousands of eighth graders take each year to determine who gets into the city’s nine most elite high schools, called the specialized high schools. The test is usually administered in the fall, but the Department of Education has yet to announce a plan for this year’s test. Recently, the DOE cancelled a series of information sessions on high school admissions, forcing parents to wait even longer to get clarity on what the admissions process will look like during the coronavirus pandemic. 

PLACE is growing impatient with the DOE. “We are here with a very simple message,” one PLACE member yelled at the rally. “Follow the school calendar! Follow the testing and screening that you promised us back in June. Offer the SHSAT! And keep your promises!” 

Teens Take Charge, meanwhile, is one of several groups advocating for the state to abolish the SHSAT altogether. When they heard about PLACE’s rally at City Hall, they decided to stage a counter-rally. On the sidewalk, they chalked statements like “Let’s give everyone a fair chance,” and they carried signs with slogans like “Integrate now.” 

Sierra Fraser, a member of Teens Take Charge, advocates for the removal of admissions screens. 

Teens Take Charge argues that the test creates de facto segregation, barring under-resourced Black and brown students from having a shot at success. As evidence, they point to statistics. Last year, only 10 percent of students in specialized high schools were Black and Hispanic, even though nearly 70 percent of the entire school system is Black and Hispanic. And, as headlined in the New York Times last March, only seven Black students were admitted to Stuyvesant, New York’s most selective school, out of 895 spots. 

“I think [the SHSAT] tests the amount of money you have or where you really are in society,” said Sierra. “Not everybody is going to have the funding for test prep. One test does not determine how smart a kid is.” 

For Sierra, the issue of school segregation is a personal one. Four years ago, she walked into her high school’s auditorium for the first time. She gazed around the cold, rectangular room and saw rows of seats filled with white students. All Sierra could sense then was her Blackness.

“It was scary,” she says, looking back on her first day as a freshman at Lab School for Collaborative Studies, a predominantly white high school in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. Though Lab is not one of the specialized high schools, it does use “screens” such as GPA, attendance records and standardized test scores to determine which students are admitted. 

At Lab, Sierra had SAT and AP exam prep after school; she was given a sleek MacBook Air to complete her assignments. By her junior year, guidance counselors were meeting with her and ultimately helped her land a full-tuition scholarship to Smith College. Lab put Sierra on a path to success, one she always wanted to be on. Yet she was angry. 

While Sierra and her mostly white classmates were receiving every resource imaginable, she had Black and Latinx friends who lived in a different world. She says her friends at under-resourced schools, where more than half of students lived in poverty, did not have enough guidance counselors to reach all the students. Their computers did not work, and the schools sometimes offered a third of the extracurricular activities Lab offered. 

“Black and Latinx kids are sinking while the resources that are supposed to be for everyone are the stairs to success for everyone but us,” Sierra wrote in a testimony she delivered at a Teens Take Charge rally. “This system seems to work for everyone but us.”

Members of PLACE staged a rally at City Hall in October to advocate for the SHSAT. (Photo: Jasmine Photo) 

As the pandemic rages on, disagreements over the SHSAT have only heightened. Mayor Bill de Blasio indicated two weeks ago that the test would likely be administered online this year, prompting outcries from some education advocates. 

“Doing it online, how is that equitable?” remarked Shino Tanikawa, a member of New York City’s Community Education Council for District 2 and a fierce advocate for school integration. “A lot of students are without homes right now. Or they might be doubled or tripled up with other families, which is not conducive to learning.”

Shino added that she, in partnership with several organizations and parents, recently wrote a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo asking that he issue an executive order to prohibit the test just for this year.

At the same time, Teens Take Charge is lobbying a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The 36-page complaint, filed November 16, claims that the use of admissions screens in New York City public high schools violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  

By using middle and high school admissions screens, the complaint argues, the city is effectively “siphoning off white students into a few well-resourced schools while packing Black and Latinx students, as well as students from under-represented Asian ethnicities, into poorly-resourced schools.” Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, recipients of federal financial assistance are prohibited from using criteria that subject students to discrimination. Teens Take Charge argues that even if screens were not designed with a discriminatory intent, they ultimately have a disparate impact on minority students.  The U.S. Department of Education’s office has not yet responded to the complaint, according to the legal clinic that filed it. 

Meanwhile, a GoFundMe campaign is raising money to take legal action to compel the city to administer the SHSAT. The campaign has already raised more than $10,000. Haim Cohen, an Israeli immigrant who helped organize the GoFundMe, is adamant that the test is required by law. In 1971, the state legislature passed the Hecht-Calandra Act, mandating that the SHSAT be the sole criteria used to determine admissions to the specialized high schools. 

At the time, the city’s school chancellor Harvey B. Scribner had appointed a commission to look into allegations that the SHSAT was biased against people of color. Almost identical to the arguments Teens Take Charge puts forth today, some advocates charged that the test was “culturally biased,” specifically screening out Black and Puerto Rican students. Worried that Scribner’s commission might do away with the test, supporters of specialized high schools roused state legislators to introduce a bill to protect the SHSAT. 

At the October rally, members of Teens Take Charge staged a counter rally, etching statements like this one into the sidewalk. 

Now, Haim believes the city is using the pandemic as an excuse to get rid of the test, a move he considers both illegal and deceptive. “Instead of fixing the broken middle schools to produce more students who are ready to attend specialized high schools, they want to make the problem go away by eliminating any metric that indicates there is a problem,” he says. 

To Haim, the fact that so few Black and Latinx students get into a specialized high school is a problem, but he does not think the solution is getting rid of the test. Instead, he says the city needs to invest more in under-resourced K-8 schools. According to state data, less than half of the city’s students in grades 3 to 8 are scoring at proficient levels in English and math, the New York Post reported. 

Though the conflict over the SHSAT is building steam this year, it is not a new one. When de Blasio ran for mayor in 2013, he campaigned on the issue of education, saying the specialized high schools should better reflect the demographics of the city. De Blasio proposed replacing the test with a new formula for admissions – one that would utilize class rank and statewide standardized test scores to admit students. Under de Blasio’s proposal, admissions would be offered to students who rank in the top of their middle school class– based on a composite of their average grades and performance on the New York State tests– and score in the top quartile of all New York Public School students. 

A 2019 report from the New York City Independent Budget Office simulated what admissions offers would look like under de Blasio’s proposal. As expected, they found that for the 2017-2018 school-year, admissions offers would look radically different. Under the new proposal, about 19 percent of admissions would go to Black students and 27 percent to Hispanic students, versus four percent and six percent respectively. 

Because the SHSAT is written into state law, de Blasio cannot on his own implement his new proposal at all of the specialized high schools. He needs approval from the State. A bill to change admissions was introduced last year, but the highly divisive proposal never even made it to a floor vote in Albany. Some Asian parents and lawmakers argue that the proposal would ultimately discriminate against low-income Asian students, who make up more than half of specialized high school students. One person even compared the proposal to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the New York Times reported. Some alumni of the specialized high school also funded a multi-billion dollar lobbying effort aimed at defeating de Blasio’s proposal. They say the way to address the lack of diversity in specialized high schools is not to eliminate the test, but to fund test preparation and to add more Gifted & Talented (G&T)  programs, which can serve as a pipeline to the specialized high schools. 

Notably, even those who want to keep the SHSAT seem to agree that New York’s education system is broken and in need of a long-term fix. Groups like PLACE point to the failing K-8 schools as the problem. They are urging the city to create more G&T programs and to even consider creating more specialized high schools. 

Other groups want to overhaul the entire admissions system. IntegrateNYC, for instance, seeks to devise a new algorithm for high school admissions. “We’ve spent the last five years working with coders from Data for Black Lives and other folks from the DOE to help us think about, how do we design an algorithm for 700 schools that prioritizes equity?” said IntegrateNYC founder Sarah Camiscoli. 

Like Teens Take Charge, IntegrateNYC is largely student-run, a model Sarah calls a “radical project in democracy.” It’s a model that gives teenagers like Sierra some hope for the future. 

“Even though there’s a lot of work to do, I think this generation is just unstoppable,” Sierra says, explaining that her peers will not stop advocating until they see concrete change. “We are so good.”