Every year in New York City, a debate flares up around the racial make-up of Stuyvesant High School, one of Manhattan's most elite, yet public, schools. The specialized school, one of eight in New York, requires a test to get in and doesn't look at any other information about the student. Extracurricular activities, like playing multiple musical instruments or spending Sundays writing sonnets, advanced course-work, letters of recommendations, all of it ceases to matter. The test rules all.
The debate about the test pours salt into old wounds. I'm referring, of course, to my own. Back in 1989, despite being told I was "gifted" for most of my life — I started school not speaking English yet skipped a grade and was always chosen for advanced programs — I did not get into Stuyvesant.
Adding to my resentfulness is that my eventual husband did, very proudly, attend the school. He never played piano or guitar. I don't think he's ever even read a sonnet. We're both Jewish immigrants, me from the former Soviet Union, him from Israel, so it probably wasn't a cultural bias, but Stuyvesant is 57% male and only 43% female, so it was likely my gender that held me back.
All joking aside, I looked for reasons for many years why Stuyvesant rejected me but I knew it was I simply didn't score as well on the test as the other people who took it with me on that day. That's the beauty of the test: there's nothing subjective about it. You either score in or you don't.
Now New York Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to change the admission criteria for these specialized schools in the interest of “fairness.” His plan would get rid of the test altogether and reserve about 20% of seats for underrepresented minorities.
The foolish plan is in line with what is happening nationwide. The lowering of standards in our schools in the interest of fairness actually ends up being deeply unfair and ultimately harmful to students.
We’ve gone from raising a generation of kids who expect a participation trophy to one that expects 1st place, every time, no matter what.
In the last decade, to make sure that more kids are passing to the next grade, we’ve made the curriculums easier. In 2016, the Ohio State Board of Education lowered minimum proficiency standards on high school math tests after results were lower than anticipated. Last year, one Philadelphia School District simply started passing kids who scored 60-69, that’s a D, and stopped permitting any scores at all under 50.
To improve graduation rates, we’ve lowered standards at our high schools to such an extent that community colleges were forced to lower theirs as well. A report last year by the National Center on Education and the Economy found that the end result has been graduates with extremely limited math and English skills entirely unready for the job market.
It’s a travesty that of Stuyvesant’s student body of 3,318 pupils, only 23 are black and 93 are Hispanic. But it’s a travesty that begins far before any student takes the exam for entry. The national phenomenon of lowering standards until everyone wins needs to stop. Cities and states have to start education reform in elementary school and make promotion to the next grade an achievement not an automatic process.
In order to accept unprepared kids, the specialized schools will have no choice but to lower the quality of their education. Even those of us still bitter over our rejection shouldn’t want that to happen. If we can improve schooling for all, New York may end up requiring more than just these 8 specialized high schools. More smart, prepared, kids in more high quality schools should be the goal. Lowering the bar is the wrong path.