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The Best and Brightest (and whitest?)

We’re just about finished jumping through the hoops for getting into middle school–we’ve toured all the schools, filled out the applications, and Liam just finished a round of tests with perhaps a few more still to come. Keep in mind that we’re talking middle school, people–6th freaking grade. Not high school, not college, not a top-secret government agency.  One particularly high-strung classmate of Liam’s wailed to her mom that if she didn’t get into a good middle school she wouldn’t get into a good high school and then she wouldn’t get into a good college and then she wouldn’t get a good job and she’d end up living in box on the street.

She’s a tad dramatic, that girl, and we’re pretty sure she’s headed to a performing arts school. But despite her anxiety, middle school is a pretty low stakes operation.

When you get to the other end of middle school and start thinking about high schools, however, the stakes start to matter. Being a proactive worrier, I’m already fretting about high school applications: would Liam do better at a small artsy school? a serious academic school? or one of the big elite schools, like Bronx Science or Stuyvesant?

Cathie Black, our sassy Chancellor with the larky sense of humor, just announced that 5984 eighth-graders were offered spots at the city’s nine specialized high schools. “These students have admirably pushed themselves and we look forward to watching them succeed in high school and beyond,” she said in her press release.  200 more students received spots than last year–5400 as opposed to last year’s 5200.

It’s great news, right? All these kids coming to the elite high schools, where they’ll prepare to be the leaders of tomorrow by learning how to negotiate a demanding curriculum and a diverse student body.

Whoops.

Demanding, yes. Diverse?

Not so much. (Click here for a chart from Gotham Schools that breaks down the racial composition of the student body at the city’s public high schools).

Seems that, for instance, while Bronx Science admitted 1026 students, only 26 are African American.  Stuyvesant High School admitted 937 students, only 12 are African American. Not 12 percent. TWELVE.  Which is, of course, almost twice as many as they admitted last year–last year, it was 7 students.  Can you imagine what it would be like to walk through halls crowded with several thousand students and never, ever see a face that resembles yours?  Who among us, at 14, would have the guts for that?

Students are admitted to the specialized high schools (the non-performing arts schools) on the basis of test scores alone, which Joel Klein insisted made for a more “objective” admissions process.  Because, you know, numbers are totally objective, and because every student comes to these admissions tests with exactly the same preparation and from exactly the same background.

In an article from a few years back (2006, to be exact), NYC school officials bemoaned the lack of racial diversity at the city’s elite high schools and decided that a summer test prep program would cure the problem. Nope. Seems you can’t atone for twelve years of over-crowded, under-funded, under-resourced education in one summer course. Admissions numbers actually went down after this program was adopted.  The only non-white ethnic group to make inroads on these admissions numbers are Asians, who form about half of Stuyvesant’s incoming class (but less than 10% at the Lehmann High School for American Studies).

A professor from Harvard cited in the article argues that no college takes kids solely on the basis of test scores; job applicants aren’t hired solely on their test scores; law students aren’t admitted solely on the basis of their test scores, so why would we use that standard for admission to these high schools? Are we really so sure that a kid who scores a 99 is that much better than a kid who scores a 95, or even a 90?  And in a world that increasingly forces us to bump up against all kinds of difference–racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual, religious–can we really afford to have our best high schools remain essentially closed to non-white or non-Asian students?

I’m not blaming the high schools for having rigorous admissions standards, don’t get me wrong. I’m saying that focusing only on numbers creates a wildly skewed filter that ultimately does no one any good.

Cathie B., our world-class, super-duper school manager, hasn’t addressed the latest racial disparity in this year’s admissions numbers. I’m sure she’ll say something, at some point, and maybe there will be yet another blue-ribboon committee put together to study this “troubling” issue, and maybe yet another test-prep service will be formed for high-performing kids from low-performing schools, but none of that will mean a thing until attention gets focused on the public schools at the bottom of the food chain: elementary schools that are increasingly unable to fulfill their mission because they are over-crowded and under-funded, and because the teachers who work in these schools are regularly knee-capped by a city administration that insists they teach test-taking, instead of thinking.

Liam spends almost one full day a week these days with “test prep” for the standardized tests he will be taking in May.  They will be spending more time on prep work as the test date gets closer. Last year, for the all-important fourth grade tests (upon which sixth grade admissions depend), he spent two or three days a week with practice tests, test-taking strategies, and “relaxation techniques” (which had the effect of turning all the fourth-graders into anxiety balls). On the upside, of course, he and his friends all did very well, so off they’ll go to “good” middle schools and then, I assume, to “good” high schools, and thus they will avoid the box-in-the-street fate imagined by their dramatic classmate. It’s a fucked up system that rewards kids who know how to take tests but may not, necessarily, know how to solve a problem or imagine alternatives to the status quo.

The kids hate test prep; they hate the tests; they’d rather be pursuing their “pioneer study,” for example, in which they all create characters who have to get from Missouri to California or Colorado in 1847.  But collaborating on the best use of a family’s tiny nest egg to buy supplies for a cross-country trek isn’t on the test.  Nor is figuring out how to build a replica of the Brooklyn Bridge from household materials, like these kids did, at PS89 (where I heard Diane Ravitch speak last week):

It’s not rocket science, folks. We’re not producing thinkers, innovators, imaginators. We’re producing test-takers. But life’s tests aren’t tidy multiple choice affairs, and they can’t be reduced to a set of memorize-able formulas or flash cards of vocabulary words.  Life’s tests come in the form of having to work with people whose needs, goals, and backgrounds are different from our own.

In terms of preparing our kids for those tests? I think we’re failing.

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3 Responses to The Best and Brightest (and whitest?)

  1. KSB February 15, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    Love your striked out words, in this post and all others!

  2. karen February 15, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    Excellent post. One additional thing to consider with respect to all that time spent in fourth grade preparing for those tests which determine admissions to middle school: they don’t actually determine admissions to middle school for several of the desirable middle schools in our district. That’s why our children are taking all these supplemental tests since each school seems to think that their way of testing or interviewing is much more efficient and predictive of future performance than the statewide ELA/Math tests. So what those tests are being used for is to determine how good the teachers have been over the last year. But of course we know it’s really only determining how good the teachers are at teaching test prep, and says nothing about whether the teacher is inspiring, innovative or is able to teach a child critical thinking. But I think that was another post….

  3. Ann February 16, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    Yes indeed, Deb. David Brooks made a similar point in a column a few weeks ago regarding the Chinese Dragon Mommy (or whatever the hell she’s called) — the high test scores, the “achieving” (in non-art, non-phys. ed. classes) in academics, the technically perfect piano/violin/cello playing . . . none of this matters as much, in terms of your ability to “succed” in life, as being able to get along with 12 eleven year-old girls (or boys) at a slumber party.

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