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The Test Isn’t the Problem

City Journal

July 13, 2023

Now that the Supreme Court has disallowed overtly race-conscious university admissions policies, we can expect colleges to try to find other ways to pursue their version of diversity. In New York, we’ve already seen one likely workaround: the lingering idea of ditching entrance-exam requirements for admission to the city’s elite public schools.

Thanks to a merit-based admissions policy, New York’s exam schools, such as Stuyvesant High School, have been a particular blessing for Asian students, many from low-income immigrant families, who make up 83 percent of the student body. By contrast, only seven of 762 students in this fall’s incoming class are black, down from 11 in 2022 and eight in 2021.

As the New York Times put it, “The annual numbers traditionally fan a debate over the admissions process at [the city’s eight selective high schools], to which acceptance is determined by a single entrance exam.” In other words, we can expect another push like the one former mayor Bill DeBlasio mounted to find less objective measures to correct the schools’ racial “under-representation.”

It is not wrong to be concerned about the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. But those numbers reflect the public school system’s failures, not the failure of merit-based admissions policies.

That the admission test is not the problem is demonstrated by a different set of numbers: the percentages of black students at New York’s elite private high schools, such as Fieldston (10 percent), Horace Mann (5.2 percent), Riverdale Country Day (8.5 percent) and Collegiate (5.8 percent). These are not easy schools to get into, much less afford. Nevertheless, all have significantly higher percentages of black students than Stuyvesant.

True, these private schools may be relaxing some standards, as the Supreme Court found that Harvard was doing, but they generally require or strongly recommend that applicants take exams like the Secondary School Admission Test.

A more convincing explanation exists for why elite private schools admit more black students. It’s called Prep for Prep—a summer and after-school enrichment program that, since 1978, has focused specifically on helping promising New York City “students of color” qualify for admission to elite independent schools. Established in part with support from Columbia University, the program has produced extraordinary results. For the most recent academic year, 668 Prep for Prep students were enrolled at 150 top private schools, including Andover, Choate, Exeter, Horace Mann, Poly Prep, and Trinity—supported by $35 million in financial aid. Prep for Prep’s long-term results appear positive, too, with 85 percent of black students going on to graduate from college within six years. Asian students are also included in the program. One can make a good case that this is how a genuine version of affirmative action should work: providing remedial tutoring and financial aid to promising students to compensate for the shortcoming of New York City’s public school system.

If you need more convincing that the public education system is to blame for black and Hispanic underrepresentation at the city’s exam schools, consider: black and Hispanic enrollment at New York’s specialized high schools has dropped sharply since the 1970s, when it accounted for 14 percent of Stuyvesant enrollment. (Today, it’s 6.2 percent.) New York has plenty of qualified minority students; they’re just going to other schools. All of this undermines the case for relaxing testing standards or merit-based standards of any kind, whether in New York, Boston, San Francisco, or Buffalo—all cities where exam schools are under fire. The tests are not the problem; it’s the public schools themselves.