Last Friday was “match day” for New York City’s eighth graders, when they found out whether they’d been admitted to one of the city’s elite high schools. And not shockingly, the numbers were appalling when it came to diversity.
There are nine of these selective high schools in New York City. At eight of them, students take a test to get in, and at one—La Guardia High School, which specializes in the performing arts—students must audition. Of the schools that “test in,” black and Latino students will likely make up no more than 4 and 6 percent, respectively, of the student populations next year. Yet across the city, those two groups make up 70 percent of the public school population.
At lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High, for example, just 23 black and Hispanic students won seats in next year’s freshman class—compared with 178 white students and 682 Asian students. At Staten Island Technical High School, not a single black student was offered a place. It’s not just that these rates are bad—they’re actually getting worse. Stuyvesant admitted 31 black and Hispanic teens last year. Staten Island Technical High School offered a place to nine black students.
New York City isn’t the only city with selective public schools, of course, although the admission requirements vary tremendously, even within school districts. With that in mind, I undertook an unscientific survey of selective schools in a range of other cities, to see if they’re doing any better or worse.
The result? There is no normal. Other schools show discrepancies comparable to those in New York, while some come closer to mirroring the demographics of their school districts. But overall, many selective schools we looked at have demographics that fail to match those of their broader district.
At Thomas Jefferson, a magnet school in Alexandria, Virginia, for instance, there’s a notable gulf when it comes to Asian students. Nearly 60 percent of the school’s population was Asian during the 2014–15 school year, compared to 20 percent of the wider public school system.
In Boston, at one of America’s oldest schools, Boston Latin, 12 percent of the student population is Hispanic, while Hispanic students make up around 41 percent of Boston public schools.
At Benjamin Franklin, an elite school in New Orleans, 32 percent of the children are black and 38 percent are white. But that’s compared with a school district that is more than 70 percent black.
At Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C., 81 percent of the students are black, a number that falls much closer to district averages. However, that school has strong ties to Howard University, a historically black institution.
There’s no single reason, or single solution, for this problem. In many parts of America, children of color are more likely to attend subpar elementary and middle schools than their white peers, making it harder for them to pass the tests needed to gain admission to selective high schools. Nationally, the tests themselves may even be biased in some instances. And a higher percentage of black and Latino families live in poverty when compared with whites. Those families are more likely to struggle to navigate the admissions processes at selective schools. There’s a clear need for school officials to improve outreach to students of color, and to streamline and better communicate about the admissions process in some instances. But there’s no quick fix. In New York City, the district tried offering free test preparation courses—but this year 500 fewer black and Hispanic students even opted to take the exam than last year.
Sadly, when it comes to selective admission schools, it’s not so much a question of whether there’s likely to be racial disparities as it is how big and which kind.