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The Debate Over New York City’s Specialized High Schools

Last Monday, the fates of 27,500 students were forever changed. It was the release date for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, also known as SHSAT. These students took this test to enter one of eight specialized high schools in New York City (Think the Ivy League of public high schools). When the results were released, many were shocked not by the number of total seats but by the number of seats offered to certain ethnicities.

Among the 895 students accepted by Stuyvesant High School, the specialized high schools’ answer to Harvard, only seven were African American. Meanwhile, in Staten Island Technical High School, only one, out of 304 seats, is occupied by an African American student. The results even made it to the New York Times. But to be brutally honest, I wasn’t surprised by the demographics of the results. As an alum of one of these specialized high schools, I knew this was going to happen as much as I wanted to believe otherwise. Instead, the results made me realize how much in-need the New York City public school system is for a change and how that change needs to happen now.

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the Big Apple’s public school system, let’s take a trip to Fresh Meadows, Queens. Fresh Meadows is the typical New York City suburban neighborhood with green lawns in front of every house and a shopping center with a Kohl’s. A good amount of the residents are first-generation immigrants and their families. My family is one of those families. My parents came to the U.S. from Taiwan for graduate school and decided to stay here to ensure that their children could get a good education and live life to its fullest. Growing up, I went to schools where Asian Americans made up the majority. Almost all my friends had the same skin color and were raised with the same cultural values as me. Our parents heavily emphasized academics and naturally wanted their children to take the SHSAT. To us and our families, the test was a golden ticket out of our tiny suburban town and onto a gold-paved road to success. Failure meant hanging your head in shame and going to a severely overcrowded local high school.

In order to get a good score on the test, many of us spent our summers in the air-conditioned rooms of test prep centers where we would do practice problems after practice problems. Weekends during the school year meant bubbling in Scantron after Scantron for practice tests. With this much preparation, it was pretty much guaranteed you would get into the specialized high school of your dreams if you went to a test prep center. The catch? These test prep centers are expensive, with rates as high as $2000 for a six-month session. Not everyone can afford these centers and while there are free programs designed to help students prepare for the test, these programs are often not as rigorous nor helpful. In other words, the entire test is a game. A game of who spent the most time studying, who went to the most expensive prep school, and, most of all, who lives in a “better” neighborhood.

Eventually, I did well on the test and got into my first choice, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College. A small school with 400 students on one floor in a building on a college campus, I liked the fact that it was a small school setting and a twenty minute bus ride from home. But the lack of diversity was terrifying. The school is located in Jamaica where there is a large African American, Hispanic, and South Asian descent population. Every morning, you would see streams of Asian American students trickling into the school from trains and buses, but barely any students of African or Hispanic descent. I can count off the amount of Caucasian, African American, Hispanic classmates I had but I can’t with the amount of Asian American classmates I had. In a classroom with thirty students, at least twenty were Asian American. In a sense, my school was an Asian bubble of sorts. While I had a good experience academics-wise, I developed a limited perspective of the world around me as I didn’t interact with many peers that were not of Asian descent. Consequently, I was scared when I was about to go to college because I wasn’t mentally prepared to go to a school with a diverse student body.

The lack of diversity in specialized high schools is subject to constant debate in the city. The mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio, and the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Richard Carranza, have been obsessed with changing the high school’s admissions process. Carranza bluntly stated in an interview with Fox 5, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.” Carranza is right; no one ethnic group should dominate the admissions to the specialized high schools, but the plan he and De Blasio are proposing is not going to change this “narrative.”

The two men proposed a two-part plan in an attempt to diversify the student body of specialized high schools. The first part is increasing admission of students from the Discovery Program, a summer enrichment program designed to help “high performing, disadvantaged” students to gain access to a specialized high school. The second part is phasing out the SHSAT and replacing the test with an admissions process where the top 7% of each middle school in New York City would be admitted to the high schools. The plan has been met with much backlash, especially from the Asian American community who even went so far as to sue the city on the grounds that the plan discriminates against Asian Americans. Supporters argue that this plan will lead to a diversification of the student bodies in the schools as more African American and Hispanic students will be given a chance. Opponents argue that the new plan will only take seats away from Asian Americans, as the Discovery Program will be limited to admitting students from middle schools where at least 60 percent of the students are low income. Many schools with Asian Americans will be disqualified despite being close to the cutoff.   

Photo Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

While I support Carranza and De Blasio’s efforts to change the high school admissions process, their plan is not what New York City needs. In addition to the faults of the Discovery Program, the second part of the proposed plan doesn’t address the different grading systems in the New York City middle schools. Each and every teacher grades as they see fit, with some like my brother’s English teacher who would give a 0 to students who couldn’t get a form signed by their parents. Carranza and De Blasio need to acknowledge that with inconsistent grading systems, the top 7% of one middle school is completely different from the top 7% of another middle school.

Additionally, Carranza and De Blasio barely interact with the Asian American community, which already sets up a barrier between the two parties. Because of this lack of communication, their plan doesn’t take into consideration the needs of all New York City students which creates even more imbalance. To put it simply, the two men are only slapping duct tape on a leaky pipe when the whole pipe system just really needs replacing. So what other solution is there to this sticky situation?

Focus on giving the resources New York City high schools desperately need. Many non-specialized high schools have the potential to be schools with great academic programs and extracurricular activities. I could have gone to one ten blocks away from me but the only problem was that it was overcrowded due to a lack of high schools in my area. Specialized high schools are not much better off. My music teacher had to raise money just to get instruments because the Board of Education did not provide our school with enough resources for adequate instruments.

The city needs to fix the distribution of students and funding among schools so that the students can take classes where they are able to pursue their interests and be taught by teachers on how to translate their interests to a career. Give teachers the materials they need to inspire students to do anything from picking up an instrument to learning how to code. Give students a reason to learn other than being trapped in a vicious cycle of standardized testing.  


The education of New York City high schoolers should not be sacrificed for this war over one test. The New York City public school system does not revolve around a mere eight elite schools. This city is so much more than that.


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Emily is currently a junior at Boston University studying English and English Education. In addition to her love for reading and writing, she has an unhealthy obsession with cute desserts and graphic tee shirts. When she's not typing away on her laptop, you can find her cafe hunting, bopping to music, or doodling.
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