Thursday, October 11, 2012

Stuyvesant entrance exam is equal opportunity as an academic competition

For background, see NAACP et al claim Stuyvesant entrance exam is racist.

A mother of NYC specialized public high school students suggests ways to improve the preparedness of black and Latino students for the SHSAT. While she's fine with the SHSAT itself, she takes issue with differences among test-takers during the process. She ends her post with the conclusion that if her suggestions aren't followed, then "the specialized high school admissions process will remain neither merit-based nor equal opportunity." While I think her suggestions are worth considering, I disagree with the framing of her conclusion. The SHSAT test-taking process, as it stands, is fundamentally merit-based and equal opportunity in the context of competition. The SHSAT is an academic competition with a math, reading comprehension, and logical reasoning test where the winners are determined by a simple rank order of test scores. The competition's prizes are the thousands of seats in the 8 specialized public high schools, with Stuyvesant on top. Elite academic competitors, just like top athletes with their abilities, start with natural talent and hone that talent into superior academic abilities with training, practice, and tests of skill over time. In my comment to her post, I compare the equal opportunity of the competitive SHSAT to equal opportunity in competitive sports:

I agree with you that the "NAACP LDF’s focus on the test – and not the entire process – is misplaced". Your ideas for equitable fixes in the whole test-taking spectrum are worth considering. For the most part, you and I are on the same page with this issue. However, I have a few thoughts and quibbles.

I agree and disagree with your conclusion that "the specialized high school admissions process will remain neither merit-based nor equal opportunity".1 As it stands now, the SHSAT-based rank-order admission is fundamentally merit-based and equal opportunity.

No party to the complaint, including the NAACP LDF, is disputing the exam itself is race-neutral. The SHSAT's test of math, reading comprehension, and logic reasoning abilities matches the fundaments required of students to successfully engage the exam schools' math and science intensive curriculae. Those abilities are not race-exclusive traits. The 'holistic' admission process requested by the NCAAP LDF to replace the standardized SHSAT is better suited to humanities intensive and arts intensive curriculae, and indeed, we find specialized schools like Townsend Harris and Laguardia already use different admission processes tailored to their programs.

Regarding merit, rank-order placement is a pure, straightforward, transparent form of merit-based selection. (Disclaimer: I use Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech, which I assume continue to accept students from the top 3 tiers of ranked scores, as reference; I don't know the SHSAT admission formula of the more-recent specialized schools.)

Regarding equal opportunity, I believe the difference is our understanding of the SHSAT's context. The whole process of the SHSAT can be understood as equal opportunity in the context of competition, not in the context with which we normally understand public education as a matter of right. Students must compete for the finite number of seats available at the specialized public high schools. The SHSAT is the arena of competition from which the winners and losers emerge.

The SHSAT provides the equal opportunity of a level playing field. But similar to PSAL competitions, the inequality of the SHSAT stems not from the sport, gym, or the officials, but from the competitors themselves with their unequal levels of natural potential (talent) and preparation (training and practice). When PSAL athletes compete, the opportunity provided to them by the PSAL is equal, although their athletic abilities vary by a lot.

We expect our best PSAL athletes to be naturally talented and to have trained with coaches, intensely practiced on their own, and competed outside of school teams, often starting years before high school. Yet when our best PSAL athletes overpower their competition resulting in disparate impact, we accept the merit of their achievements as a result of fairly won competition. Is it fair then for the NAACP LDF to accuse and degrade the achievements of talented, trained, practiced, and therefore able, public school students on the SHSAT, rather than accept their ranked scores as fairly won in competition?

Food for thought. The NAACP LDF advances the assumption that black and Latino students are not winning seats at Stuyvesant in higher numbers because their families cannot afford test prep. However, lower-income Asian families are sacrificing, scrimping, and saving to pay for test prep, so the financial bar for test prep cannot be unreachable for similarly lower-income black and Latino families. How many black and Latino families who do not invest in test prep are making or would make an equal or greater investment in their children's athletic activities, perhaps from an even earlier age than needed for SHSAT test prep?

To stretch the competitive SHSAT-sports comparison further, the best PSAL athletes must try out alongside their less athletic classmates to join PSAL championship teams. The champion teams are the best only because they accept athletes who demonstrated they were the best in try outs. Stuyvesant and other top schools are only elite because they take students, like your kids, who demonstrated they were academically superior in their SHSAT try-out. If we forced PSAL champions to take lesser athletes to cure disparate impacts in athletic competition, the teams would no longer be PSAL champions. Nor would they provide sufficient conditions for our most talented PSAL athletes to hone their abilities for higher-level competition where the athletes are just as talented but perhaps better trained and prepared. The specialized schools are designed with the same championship concept. Regarding 'holistic' admissions for math and science schools, a try-out that's tailored for baseball would be an inefficient selection device for a championship football coach, despite that the two sports have significant overlap. Athleticism is athleticism, but the two sports are not the same. Smart is smart, and while Stuyvesant has scientists who are creative writers and Townsend Harris has creative writers who are scientists, the two schools still choose their students to match their different curriculae.

As I said, your ideas for equitable fixes to the process are worth considering. However, can the tax-paying public afford them? Does the city have the resources (money, teachers, facilities, etc) to expand programs like SHSI-Dream to encompass all students? I believe the SHSI-Dream program limits acceptance to students with sufficient test scores, not by a quantity cut-off (eg, a lottery). In other words, NYCDOE will provide the training, but only to students who have first demonstrated they have sufficient natural talent to compete on the SHSAT. I can't think of a fairer way to allot public resources for SHSAT prep. By the same token, I wouldn't ask the city to expend the amount of resources that would be needed to train every wannabe PSAL basketball player like Stephon Marbury (he was the best PSAL baller in my time).

The SHSAT is fundamentally competitive. It's well-tailored to the math and science intensive schools. Attending the specialized high schools isn't a civil right like access to the non-specialized schools. Just as in sports, equal opportunity in the SHSAT comes from a level playing field, a straight game. Merit is decided by the winners and losers, and that's the rank order. As with any competition, disparate impact on the SHSAT is inevitable due to the differing talent, practice, and training of the competitors.

I think if the NAACP LDF can accept that disparate impact is an inevitable result of the fundamentally competitive nature of the SHSAT, then we can begin to identify reasonable and fiscally responsible ways to identify and train all of NYC's sufficiently talented students. Many lower-income Asian parents who would otherwise sacrifice to pay for test prep would be grateful for more financial assistance from the city.

I'll make a final comment that's outside the scope of your post. The NAACP LDF harbors the misperception that the exam schools are making the students. As a Stuyvesant graduate, I understand the equation actuallly works the opposite way: just as the best athletes make for the best teams, the best students make for the best schools. The specialized schools are special only due to the quality of their students. Diluting the quality of the students would dilute the specialness of the schools. Stuyvesant's infrastructure, resources, and faculty are not actually substantively better than other NYC public high schools. This was especially the case when I attended Stuy in the old, small, overcrowded, falling-apart building on 15th Street. But even today in the larger (no longer) new building, Stuyvesant's resources and carrying capacity are stretched very thin by the expanded student body (+1000 since I attended in the early 1990s). Stuyvesant and the other exam schools only work because the quality of the students allows for efficient utilization, if not maximization, of the school's resources and faculty, such as they are. If less qualified students are shoehorned into the specialized schools, they won't be helped. Instead, the resulting inefficiencies will drag down qualified students like your kids.

1 I said in the second paragraph of my comment, "I agree and disagree with your conclusion that "the specialized high school admissions process will remain neither merit-based nor equal opportunity"." That was poorly stated. My disagreement with Carolyn is clear in the comment; however, what I agree with her about is unclear. My agreement with Carolyn is, as I said later in the comment, "your ideas for equitable fixes to the process are worth considering."

Post-script: My commentary on the NAACP LDF complaint against the SHSAT is based on the SHSAT-only admissions criteria for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. However, several New York City specialized public high schools, including Townsend Harris and LaGuardia mentioned in this post, already use multi-measure admissions criteria. In addition, since I graduated from high school, the older exam schools have expanded while a number of high schools using the SHSAT have been added, thus dramatically increasing the number of specialized high school seats available. (See the Specialized High Schools Student Handbook.) With the volume and diversity of specialized public high schools, regular public high schools, and private high schools in New York City, there appears to be no compelling need underlying the NAACP LDF attempt to alter the admissions criteria for NYC exam schools like Stuyvesant.




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