The Complicated Debate Around Specialized High School Admissions

Why has it been so difficult to improve diversity at the city's elite schools?

Katie Anastas | Tuesday, May 4, 2021


Teens Take Charge press officers Ayana Smith and Sophie Mode speaking at a press conference on May 17, 2019. (Photo/Dulce Michelle)

New York City has been trying to improve diversity in its schools for years. But lawmakers, parents, teachers and students disagree about how to do it — especially at the city’s most elite high schools, which admit students solely based on their Specialized High School Admissions Test scores.

In April, the city announced admissions details for the 2021-22 school year: Only 9% of offers to specialized high schools went to Black and Latino students, down from 11% last year. The top school, Stuyvesant High School, made offers to only eight Black students out of a total of 749 spots.

The Specialized High School Admissions Test has been at the center of debates over the schools’ lack of diversity since the ’70s. But as Katie Anastas reports, not all Black and Latino families want to get rid of the test, and not all white and Asian families want to keep it.


KATIE ANASTAS: More than a million students go to New York City’s public schools. Nine of them are specialized high schools meant for the best and brightest students in the city.

Graduates go on to become astronauts, novelists, Olympic medalists, Academy Award recipients, and Nobel Prize winners.

And joining those ranks isn’t easy. A kid might have straight A’s, do community service, or have impeccable attendance — but that doesn’t matter when it comes to admissions. 

There’s only one criteria. It’s a test. The Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT.

And the pressure is on. As one alumna put it —

TAJH SUTTON: The specialized high schools are framed as the be-all-end-all of education in your high school years. And for a lot of families, particularly families of color, you’re really given this impression that if your child doesn’t get into one of these schools, they can’t be successful. These are the schools you have to go to to get into a good college, get a good job, and have a good life.

ANASTAS: The specialized high schools have an acceptance rate of 17%. That’s the same rate as NYU, Georgetown or Notre Dame.

So it’s no wonder that students often spend years studying for SHSAT and parents spend thousands of dollars on tutors and test prep. But not every family can.  

So when word got out that just seven Black students were offered spots at Stuyvesant High School — the most elite of all the specialized high schools — back in 2019, it sparked a debate that has lasted for nearly two years.

But improving diversity at the specialized high schools can’t happen overnight. There’s a complicated government system maintaining the status quo. There’s a whole industry of test prep companies and tutors. There are parents and alumni on both sides — some who say the admissions process should change, others who worry that the pipeline to success could disappear. 

And those stances don’t fall neatly along racial or economic lines. Not all Black and Latino families want to change the admissions process, and not all white families want to keep it.

That’s why changing this system is so difficult.

WILLIAM DIEP: …wait, what’s that song? It’s a really hypnotic one. The electric one. Avani made a Tik Tok to it….

ANASTAS: This is William Diep. He’s 17, and he’s a senior at the Brooklyn Latin School, one of two specialized high schools in Brooklyn.

When he’s not doing homework, he’s catching up with his middle school friends over FaceTime, talking about Tik Tok, Spotify playlists, teenager stuff.

FRIEND: I wanted to do homework, and I had to listen to it.

DIEP: To Driver’s License?

FRIEND: These songs are kind of basic, not gonna lie.

ANASTAS: A few years ago, William was in eighth grade, preparing to take the SHSAT. He remembers finding out about how his middle school classmates were studying.

DIEP: They were paying for exams, paying for courses, paying for tutors, and they were spending thousands of dollars. I didn’t do that because I didn’t have the money to do so. 

ANASTAS: But he found a way. He printed out free practice exams at the library. 

Once he got to Brooklyn Latin, he started hearing about this group, Teens Take Charge. They were working on a bunch of projects related to modern school desegregation, like ending admissions screenings at other public high schools. Once the news broke about those seven admissions offers for Black students at Stuyvesant, that system was a natural next target for Teens Take Charge. They decided to try and change how specialized high schools admit their students.

But a lot of groups have been working on this for decades. Because this issue is complicated. 

Take William. William is Asian American. His parents are immigrants from Vietnam. It’s not white kids that make up the majority of students at specialized high schools. It’s Asian kids like William.

So maybe it’s not surprising that Asian families are some of the strongest supporters of using a student’s score on the SHSAT as the only way to get into a specialized high school.

DIEP: I think before Teens Take Charge, I was very neutral about the issue. I think I was very much neutral, leaning towards supporting the SHSAT, because I got into a specialized high school. I always thought the narrative was, if you work hard, you can get into a specialized high school. If you don’t work hard, you can’t get into a specialized high school.

ANASTAS: William says that narrative is common in the Asian American community. When he tries to talk about it with other Asian students at his school, they usually don’t want to. Or, to put it as a teenager would…

DIEP: They often do leave me on “read” and don’t want to talk about it.

ANASTAS: If you’re say, over the age of 40, being left on read means you’ve sent a text to someone, you can see that they’ve opened it, but they haven’t responded. Saying you’ve been left on read means you’re feeling ignored.

And it’s not just by his classmates. William said his parents are very much in favor of keeping the SHSAT as is.

DIEP: They do see that quote-unquote good education means good life and good success. Going to an elite school means going to an elite college and having an elite life. They definitely have that mindset because although my mom didn’t go through the New York City public school system, and although none of them went to a specialized high school, there is that expectation that me and my siblings, and other Asian American youth, should go to a specialized high school or another top screened high school.

ANASTAS: And have you talked to them about being in Teens Take Charge? Like, is that something that you want to talk about eventually?

DIEP: I think in an ideal world, of course. If it will happen anytime soon, probably not. 

ANASTAS: But while he’s at school — on Zoom, that is — William is just one of around 60 students trying to change how middle schoolers get admitted to specialized high schools like his.

He thinks it’s wrong that Black and Latino students — who make up 67% of students in New York City’s public school system — get offered just 10 percent of seats in the specialized high schools.

So how did we get here? It’s all because of one law called the Hecht-Calandra Act. And Teens Take Charge is going after it.

Hecht-Calandra is a state law that requires the specialized high schools to admit students solely based on the SHSAT. Reminder: that means no middle school grades, no attendance, no other factors. 

It was passed in 1971. New York City was facing economic turmoil and a crime spike. White New Yorkers moved to the suburbs as Black and Puerto Rican residents came in. And even though the Civil Rights Act had been in place for a few years, school desegregation was still a work in progress.

Opponents said the Hecht-Calandra Act was a racist policy. There were just three specialized high schools back then, and the New York City schools chancellor launched an investigation to see whether those three schools were culturally biased against Black and Puerto Rican students.

In response to that investigation, a group of white Democrats and Republicans doubled down, and introduced Hecht-Calandra to ensure that scoring well on the SHSAT was the only way to get in. 

When you read through the New York Times coverage of when this law got passed, it sounds a lot like the arguments that are happening today, five decades later. 

Some state legislators accused others of racism. Others said the state had no business deciding how city schools should admit their students. Nevertheless, after a three-hour debate, Hecht-Calandra passed.

STEFAN LALLINGER: When the law was initially passed, it was for the purpose of preventing the further diversification of these high schools, and it has served to maintain that. So even if there are legislators up in Albany, who don’t themselves — aren’t people who see themselves as wanting to keep these places, exclusionary, that they are, in fact doing that by upholding this law.

ANASTAS: This is Stefan Lallinger. He spent last year as a Harvard doctoral resident at the New York City Department of Education. And fun fact: his grandfather, Louis Redding, was a civil rights lawyer who played a role in the school desegregation case, Brown vs. Board of Education.

Lallinger says the Hecht-Calandra Act is a major roadblock to improving school diversity in New York City.

That’s because only a small number of kids have the time and money to study for the SHSAT. Black students, like Emmanuela Sepetia, often don’t.

EMMANUELA SEPETIA: Hi, can you hear me?

ANASTAS: Yes.

SEPETIA: Ok, because the last meeting, they said they couldn’t.

ANASTAS: We spoke over Zoom. Behind her, on her pink bedroom wall, there’s a sign lined with flowers that reads, “Dream, believe, discover.” She says there’s often a big problem for Black students like her.

SEPETIA: I literally didn’t know what the SHSAT was until, I think, three or two weeks before I took it.

ANASTAS: Neither did her parents, who are immigrants from Congo. But they encouraged her to do her best, especially her mom.

SEPETIA: I think we were kind of learning through it together, basically, because neither one of us had even heard of it before.

ANASTAS: Emmanuela scored well, but that’s because she went to a private middle school. They had a rigorous curriculum that taught them math and English above their grade level.

Even though she got into the Brooklyn Latin School, there was another challenge to face once she got there: a lack of diversity. Just 10% of students who got offered admission at Brooklyn Latin in 2019 were Black.

For Emmanuela, having such a small number of Black classmates can take a toll. She says it’s been hard to talk to her white and Asian classmates about things like the Black Lives Matter movement.

SEPETIA: There was, you know, so many instances, where due to the lack of diversity, a lot of the students tend to not be too aware of different social issues that affect members of the community, like the Black community, the Latinx community. So it’s kind of a little hard to have conversations like that sometimes.

ANASTAS: While she says the administration has been better about making statements condemning racism among students, there are still times she feels left out. Including Black History Month.

She’s heard about other public schools highlighting historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks —

SEPETIA: But my school doesn’t really do that, like at all. Like, I remember my freshman year and my sophomore year and like right now. There have been, you know, events where they focused on Chinese New Year because most of the students are Asian, but they literally never mentioned Black History Month — like I think it was like once in the announcements and then that was literally it like they didn’t do anything for it. 

ANASTAS: She feels like her school focuses on events and holidays that pertain to the majority of students in her school, rather than the minority.

SEPETIA: And like I get it, that a lot of students do belong to the same community. So like, you’re gonna lean more towards that. But you still have to be mindful of the students that might not have as much numbers in your school, but like their culture, and their identity still matters.

ANASTAS: I emailed and called the Brooklyn Latin School. I wanted to ask what they made of Emmanuela’s statement and whether they’ve put on Black History Month events, but they didn’t respond.

Emmanuela joined Teens Take Charge in May after a friend in her debate club recommended it. At her first meeting, she sat back and listened. She started to trace the lack of diversity back to the entrance exam that got her there.

SEPETIA: I think it was something I never really thought about until I was surrounded by other people that were talking about the same test that we had. Hearing different perspectives and experiences really opened me up to realizing that wow, like, we did not have the same experience.

ANASTAS: Pretty soon, she was creating social media posts and online materials about the Hecht-Calandra Act, and why Teens Take Charge wants it abolished.

In July, Emmanuela spoke at her first press conference with state lawmakers. She listed examples of the racism that she and other Black students have faced at the specialized high schools. Just a warning, it’s a long list, and it can be difficult to listen to.

SEPETIA: When I arrived there, after just a few months of being a freshman, I realized what it’s like to be a Black student at a specialized high school in New York City. For me, it was sometimes being labeled as the angry Black girl. 

For me, it was being called a monkey by one of my peers and having fellow students immediately go to his side. 

For my friends, it was being asked for the n-word pass, like saying a racial slur is a joke between buddies.

For them, it was having to leave the school that they felt they had worked so hard for, because there were too many reasons to go and not enough to stay.

ANASTAS: Last summer, after meeting with members of Teens Take Charge like Emmanuela, State Senator Julia Salazar introduced a bill that would repeal Hecht-Calandra.

She’s hoping this bill will bypass the fighting happening at the city level, among parent groups and the New York City Department of Education. But this isn’t the first time New York has considered reforming the specialized high school admissions process.

More on that after the break.

ANASTAS: In 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration proposed two major changes.

A certain number of seats are set aside every year for low-income students whose scores are just a little too low to get in. They get extra help with math and English before attending a specialized high school. De Blasio wanted to increase the number of seats, and he did. But only a third of those extra seats went to Black and Latino students.

His second proposal was much more controversial. He wanted to scrap the SHSAT, and admit students based on their middle school class rank and statewide standardized test scores. The city estimated that, if these two proposals happened together, 45 percent of students at the specialized high schools would be Black or Latino.

Parents freaked out about getting rid of the SHSAT. Some of the most vocal opponents were Asian American parents, like this mom at an information session with Mayor de Blasio in 2019.

PARENT: What I hear from the media, what I hear from the charts that I have seen, is that if there is a school where the majority of the students — 75% — are Asian-American, that that is not diverse. As if all Asian-Americans are monolithic, that we all come from the same socioeconomic background. Some are recent immigrants, some are not. Some are educated, some are not. Some have parents who speak English, a lot of them don’t have parents who speak English, etc. etc.

We were portrayed as if we were the enemies. And that is not true. I stand along with other parents. Don’t make us the enemy please. [applause]

ANASTAS: Mayor de Blasio said he wasn’t trying to make anyone the enemy.

BILL DE BLASIO: No student who’s trying to pursue their dreams is bad. But I do think a lot of very talented young people got left behind, and we’ve got to figure out how to address that. And we’ve got to figure out how to build opportunity for every kind of young person, including the young people who represent the majority of this city. And that’s the reality.

ANASTAS: Stefan Lallinger, the Harvard doctoral resident at the DOE, spent much of his time there meeting with leaders in the Asian American community.

Once parents saw the estimated reduction of Asian students at the specialized high schools, it was hard to win them over. After all, this system was working for them.

LALLINGER: The more that that sort of increased, the more it almost felt like you had to be on one side or the other, either you were for reform, and you were, you know, somehow and, you know, displaying anti-Asian sentiment, or you were against reform, and you were standing with Asian Americans in New York City, and I think once you get to that level, that’s just a really it’s not a constructive conversation to be having.

ANASTAS: The De Blasio administration’s efforts to get rid of the SHSAT failed in 2019. And those difficult conversations have come up again this year.

The SHSAT is usually administered in fall. But this year, because of the pandemic, it kept getting pushed back. Parents wondered whether the city would scrap the test altogether. And once again, the response didn’t fall along racial lines.

One test prep company, Kweller Prep, held a parent meeting to demand that the city schedule the test. Parents at the meeting — mostly Black and Latino parents — stressed how beneficial the specialized high schools have been for their kids. Some said their kids got scholarships at top universities after graduating from specialized high schools.

Only seven students were offered spots at Stuyvesant High School in 2019 sparking a debate that has lasted for two years. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Kathy Rivera came to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 15. Now, she has a son who goes to Stuyvesant. He didn’t know about the SHSAT until seventh grade, but he did well and got in.

KATHY RIVERA: As a Hispanic mother, I take a lot of pride, and it angers me a lot that politicians are taking us as a bad example. What they’re trying to say is Hispanics and African Americans…and speaking for myself, I think that’s a misconception. I think that anyone that puts their heart and their soul on a goal, they can actually make it. 

So don’t put us down. Don’t use us as a bad example saying that we don’t need the test. No, we do need the test. What we need is preparation.

ANASTAS: She says parents need to know about the SHSAT early, so they can help their kids start studying.

The test ended up happening in January, but the Senate bill to repeal Hecht-Calandra has kept the conversation going.

Another group opposed to changing the admissions process is specialized high school alumni. But it’s not just white and Asian alumni.

Tai Abrams, who is Black, graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 2007. She’s another example of how complicated this debate is.

In 2019, just 12 Black students were offered admission to Bronx Science.

Abrams admits that the lack of diversity was hard at first.

ABRAMS: I cried, because I did not see anyone who looked like me. So there was a lot of fear around, ‘Oh my Lord, I am going to school with people who I’ve never interacted with. It was a predominantly white and Chinese and Indian school,  and that was very uncomfortable for me at first. 

But I can assure you within the first week, I’d made lots of friends. They were not friends who I could identify with culturally, but I could absolutely identify with in terms of academic interest and the goals that I was aiming towards.

ANASTAS: Those goals included taking advanced math and science classes, and eventually, attending an Ivy League college. She went to Duke University to study mathematics, and went on to become an investment banking analyst.

Abrams said she never had the chance to talk about those goals at home.

ABRAMS: It was a game-changer. In my household, we weren’t even talking about going to an Ivy League. We weren’t talking about becoming an investment banker. There just wasn’t a lot of conversation at home, because I came from a single-parent household, with a mom that had to work all the time. 

So those gaps were filled at Bronx Science. Because many of my peers, we were all on the same page that we were going to be going to an Ivy League institution, we were going to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, investment bankers, entrepreneurs. And all of that began at Bronx Science.

ANASTAS: In 2016, Abrams founded AdmissionSquad. It’s a nonprofit that provides test prep for low-income middle schoolers who’ve earned high scores on statewide tests. Her goal is to help more Black and Latino students test into the specialized high schools, so they can access the same academically rigorous environment that she did.

ABRAMS: I do tell the AdmissionSquad students today, ‘Never look for the comfort of only hanging out with people who are in your same culture. Look for folks who are going in the same direction, with the same level of drive, ambition, and commitment.’

ANASTAS: Like Emmanuela, Abrams considers herself lucky. She happened to go to a middle school where she got the preparation she needed for the SHSAT.

So she might seem like an unlikely supporter of the test, but Abrams says keeping it is important, both for incoming students and their schools. She says the test provides a standardized way to evaluate the quality of talent coming out of eighth grade. And if students are behind on math or English, the test gives them a reason to catch up.

ABRAMS: I’ve seen students grow tremendously just in their preparation for the test, and we don’t want to lose out on the incentive that’s been put in place for students to make that academic leap by having to prepare for an SHSAT.

ANASTAS: But for Tajh Sutton, this isn’t a complicated issue. Like Abrams, Sutton is also a Black woman who graduated from a specialized high school. But unlike her, she wants to get rid of the SHSAT. She’s also a parent, and now she’s watching as her own son prepares to take the SHSAT.

Sutton is a program manager for Teens Take Charge. She says repealing Hecht-Calandra is just one part of a needed reexamination of how New York City schools serve their students.

SUTTON: We have to unpack what it means to throw so much energy and effort into supporting a handful of schools while hundreds and hundreds of other schools, you know, don’t even have a gym, don’t have any sports teams, don’t have any arts programming.

The parents who are hanging on for dear life to these specialized high schools, they often say things that are really discriminatory and they don’t even realize it. Like, ‘My child worked hard, so why should any kid get to go to this school when my kid did so much work?’

I heard someone say, ‘Some parents just care enough to work with their kids and go to the library and study.’ And that broke my heart, because it suggests that some parents don’t. 

And there’s no doubt in my mind that every single New York City school parent wants what’s best for their child. But if a parent has to work two jobs, or does not speak the language, they’re not going to have that same ability and access and resources.

ANASTAS: Sutton is also worried about losing a major ally in the fight for admissions reform. Richard Carranza stepped down as the New York City Schools chancellor at the end of February. He said he needed to cope with the loss of 11 family members and childhood friends during the pandemic.

According to a New York Times article, it might have also been because he and de Blasio have disagreed about their approaches to school desegregation. But Carranza denied it at a press conference.

Carranza’s replacement is Meisha Porter, the first Black woman to hold this position.

SUTTON: I’m extremely worried, and students and parents and advocates who have been organizing for educational equity, are extremely worried. One, that our most vocal chancellor is stepping down in the midst of a pandemic, and two that their replacement is a Black woman, who we know is going to be under harsh scrutiny just because she is a Black woman.

ANASTAS: I reached out to Porter’s office to ask what her plans were for the SHSAT, and I haven’t heard back. But Mayor De Blasio did hint at legislative reform at the press conference announcing Carranza’s resignation.

DE BLASIO: Even though I think the coming months may not be the moment when this happens, I do believe with this new moment of opportunity to reexamine the questions again, the day will come in Albany when we come up with a new plan to change the specialized high schools, something the chancellor and I fought for. Because that status quo in specialized high schools represents to me the worst of the past and it does not represent our city.

ANASTAS: So despite the challenges, Teens Take Charge is pushing forward. William sees skeptics — mostly parents against the bill — write comments on social media. One called the press conference that Emmanuela spoke at a joke. 

Another commenter wrote, “Emmanuela, you miss the mission of the specialized high schools. What you are talking about can be fixed with social workers, etc. There is no need to destroy the academic quality of the specialized high schools to fix the problems that you cite.”

But William keeps his head up.

DIEP: They’re spending all their energy harassing us, whereas we’re spending a lot of our energy fighting for educational equity. And that definitely keeps me going.

ANASTAS: I asked Emmanuela what keeps her going. She made it to a specialized high school. Why try to get rid of the test that got her there?

SEPETIA: There are people who are different from you. And so people who have different perspectives and different cultures. And it’s really hard to develop proper values, where you’re empathetic of different people from different backgrounds, if you’ve never met those people from different backgrounds.

Another thing that drives me is just seeing my school have more students of color in the building so that they can get these opportunities. And the fact that I’m getting this for free is, you know, it’s something that I want to share with other people. It’s not something that I just want to hold close because I’m just one person.

ANASTAS: One person trying to make a change for thousands.


This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.