Income, Not Race, May Affect Admissions to NYC's Elite High Schools

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a federal civil rights complaint this week claiming that New York City's admissions process for eight specialized high schools* is biased. According to NAACP's Rachel Kleinman:

There is a single two-and-a-half hour multiple choice test that is the sole criterion for admissions...African-American and Latino students who are qualified to be in these schools, who have strong indicators of academic merit, are not getting in because they are not doing as well on this test.

As NY1, a local news channel put it:

Stuyvesant, long considered the city's most elite public high school, offered spaces to 967 students this year. 19 of those students were black....30,000 eighth graders take the Specialized High School exam each year and many prepare extensively, spending weekends and after-school time taking test prep courses. And although the majority of city students are black or Hispanic, most specialized high school students are Asian or white.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg fired back, defending the city's admissions process, reiterating that the city's policy, which is dictated by state law, is to admit students solely on the basis of test scores. Bloomberg told reporters:

You pass the test, you get the higher score, you get into the school, no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is. That's been the tradition in these schools since they were founded and it's going to continue to be.

Here Bloomberg inadvertently mentions an important operator, but no one seems to be picking up on it. Yes, high scoring students of any economic background will be admitted, but the reality is that those high standardized scores are very often a function of economic background itself.

According to government data, the overwhelming majority (upwards of 70 percent) of New York City public school students live in poverty or are low-income. African American and Latino students also make up 70 percent of the public school population. There is a connection there. If we were to analyze NYC's elite high school admissions by parental income, it would be no surprise that those results would show that students from lower income families are not being admitted in the same proportion as students from middle and upper class families.

While the issues of civil rights and potential cultural bias need to be aired, let's not overlook the obvious connection (and gap) between economic opportunity, educational access and income level. The city knows it's there. The positive efforts announced this week to improve early education access for children from underdeserved communities is an important acknowledgement of this. The city took a step forward in equalizing economic opportunity this week by announcing its early education efforts. But the denial of the impact of income (as much as race) on high school admissions is a step back.

*As an aside, for anyone interested in better understanding New York's elite high schools, a new book by Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett called Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools from Princeton University Press provides important background.