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December 30, 2013


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Thanks for closing out 2013 with inflammation and hyperbole! I was feeling a deficit of both. Nobody in that discussion made either the claim that the admission test was a perfect metric that could not be bettered or that there was no way they would have turned out as well had they gone elsewhere (I did make the claim that I would not have enjoyed another school as much, and I'll stick to that). I suppose you were going for humor there? I am also curious as to what you thought the inconsistency in your argument was.

I'll skip to the last question. (You weren't the only person in that conversation!)

Basically, if there is no real benefit to attending a specialized high school, then it does not matter how admissions are allocated.

I didn't mean that I hadn't made those claims; I meant that I read all the facebook threads and nobody else did either. People claimed the test was very good; nobody said it was perfect. I assume you were exaggerating for effect. It was poorly done. And I know that I pointed out that contradiction at the time - possibly after you left the conversation. I can't recall if others did or not. So, demerits to you for misrepresenting everyone else in that debate on both those counts.

Everyone was quite upset over even the possibility of changing the admissions requirement. Even you! Why was that?

The value of the school lies in the student body - the facility and faculty were not what made Stuy special. The student body was selected by that admissions requirement. Any change to the admissions requirement would change the makeup of the student body. While it is certainly conceivable that such a change would make it better, the quality of those kids was already so high that the risk to reward ratio seems large. Having said that, nobody was opposed to small changes in the admissions - but small changes to the admissions would probably only result in small changes to the student body, which wouldn't solve the problem of racial representation - let's face it, we could increase the number of African American kids in the school by an order of magnitude and still be horribly skewed.

So why not increase black and Latino admits by an order of magnitude? Others in that thread were quite upset by the idea; I don't think I was misrepresenting anyone. (After all, to remain intellectually honest you need to accept the implicit assumptions behind an argument or change your argument.)

And what about the paper I linked to? (I already pointed out the lacuna; there may be others.) It implies that the risk-reward ratio is actually quite small, even zero.

Increasing black & Latino admits by an order of magnitude means denying admits to a bunch of (mostly Asian) kids who would otherwise be getting in. Why do that? The risk is that you'll have a school that's less wonderful - that's not what the paper is looking at. I am headed out; I'll happily explain further later.

I won't argue that Stuyvesant as it currently exists is a good thing; I can see a case made that the city shouldn't concentrate the better students in one place, the answer to that question requires agreement on very fundamental questions like the purpose of public education. If, however, you think that Stuy is a good thing, and that a Stuy education has enhanced value, then any changes to the entrance requirements risk diminishing that value. If you don't think it has value and is good, then the fact that it isn't available to certain students is not a tragedy. That was my position in the original argument and it hasn't changed.

You're assuming the argument! No need for that. There are value judgments involved, of course, but but aren't at the level of having to assume a priori that the specialized high schools are good things.

(1) The empirical evidence presented in the Dobbie-Fryer paper is that Stuyvesant has no educational value for the marginal admits.

(2) On the other hand, going to a highly-segregated high school has a very negative social value under the modern American value system.

(3) Perpetrating that segregation via a test that does not provide a better measure of merit than other entrance criteria has an even more negative social value.*

(4) Therefore, the case for abolishing Stuyvesant is clear, unless one of two conditions holds. (a) The paper is wrong about the educational benefits to marginal students;** or (b) there is an unmeasured large benefit to the high-scorers on the admissions test.

What would be the benefit to high-flying students and how would you measure it?


* Many of the people in that Facebook exchange did not agree with you and me that the test was an arbitrary measure of merit. Rather, they thought it could not be improved upon.

** If there is a benefit to marginal black students only, then the case for altering the admissions requirement is clear, but the specialized high schools should not be abolished.

I think you misunderstood me - I'm not arguing either for or against Stuy's continued existence. I'm not interested in that discussion. If you abolish Stuy, discussing the entrance requirements is not useful. I'm not disagreeing (or agreeing) with the substance of this post, only with your characterization of the entrance requirement discussion.

Hmm. If I understand you correctly, your arguments are not arguments, Joe, they're tautologies.

To paraphrase: "If specialized high schools based on a single admissions criterion are good, despite resulting in extreme segregation, then they should be kept as is, because good things are good."

And: "If we agree that specialized high schools should be abolished, then there is no point in discussing the entrance criteria."

I can't disagree with either! But they're not interesting, and they certainly hold no scope for learning or opinion-changing. And I don't think we agree on whether the schools are good or whether they should be abolished.

But I may be misunderstanding!

I have to admit that I don't really believe that you're not interested in the discussion of whether the admissions criteria should be changed or the specialized schools abolished. You might not be interested in discussing it with me, however. Which would be disappointing.

I will state that I do not believe that I have misrepresented the gist of opinion in any way. But memory is fallible.

Why not just copy the discussion off your Facebook page and send it to me? I'll post it, with names stripped out.

I have to say, some brief skimming around the web suggests that a lot of Stuyvesant alums are... how to put this... very, very emotionally invested in the notion that the entrance exam is good and wise and fair and that therefore admission to Stuyvesant is, by and large, a question of pure merit. And this is not a new thing, at all, at all. The current system of using the SHSAT and only the SHSAT? Was enshrined in state law in the 1970s, thanks to parents and alumni from the selective public high schools successfully lobbying the New York state legislature.

Now, basing your admissions decisions purely on a standardized multiple-choice test is a really stupid way to sort through your admissions. It has one and exactly one benefit: it's quick and simple. Otherwise, it's just painfully dopey. There's pretty much universal agreement on this point. It's not how the Ivies do admission; it's not how super-selective private high schools do admission; it's not how elite schools do admission in Britain or Germany or Sweden or Japan. It's a weird and unusual system, because most academic professionals, both in the US and worldwide, know that it's just a dumbass way to run a railroad.

You could argue with a straight face that simplicity -- plus, oh, some Straussian appearance-of-fairness type thing -- is so important, especially in this city men call New York, that the SHSAT-only model is the least bad way to go about it. But that's not the argument I see people making.

Doug, just because it's not how the Ivies or other elite schools do admissions isn't a good enough reason to abolish the current admissions process. It could be that the established "holistic" process that the aforementioned institutions have their own demerits through perpetuation of certain unspoken prejudices.

When the Ivies emphasized academics in the early part of the 20th century, it resulted in a large number of jewish students being admitted. They revised their process to force their numbers double for a more "equitable" distribution: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/06/books/review/06brooks.html?pagewanted=print

They eventually lifted up their defacto quota. Today, I'm pretty sure that very few would ever publicly advocate for reform in admissions today that would end in a decrease of Jewish matriculation to elite colleges.

But as you say, it is probably the least bad way to go about it since we're talking about a group of schools that can only take in a very small percentage of the 8th grade body in NYC. Any definition of merit will end up letting someone in at the expense of another.

The Ivies aren't the only alternative admissions process. There is Boston Latin (http://www.bls.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=206067&type=d&termREC_ID=&pREC_ID=406781) or the city of Chicago (http://www.cpsoae.org/apps/news/show_news.jsp?REC_ID=184188).

It seems Boston Latin uses both an entrance exam and grades, probably with equal weight. Actually, I would be for such a process if the exam in question wasn't the ISEE but one with a much higher testable ceiling. If the test was designed in a way that no one could possibly score perfect on it on either the math or verbal section, in that it covered material up to very high level (calculus, college level statistics, problem solving for mathematics and on the verbal side sophistication of grammar, vocabulary and argumentation [through an essay?]) - I would be for it.

That way, even an applicant with mediocre grades but has significant but undiscovered natural ability can have a chance of admission. I wouldn't mind something like that as a possible replacement for the SHSAT.

There's a very basic problem here, whatever the details of the admissions process. Black students really don't perform as well as the general population, so any successful attempt at selection by academic ability will screen them out disproportionately. You don't need to be a "Bell Curve" racist to believe this. Even if the difference in academic performance is entirely due to a racist society and education system, it still has the same effect by the time they're applying to high schools.
Of course, you could make a distinction between academic performance and innate ability, and try to measure the latter. But an innate, presumably inherited trait that determines your academic potential and isn't affected at all by your lousy elementary school... Well, I find it plausible but some people have strongly argued against it.

"I find it plausible"

Of course you do, Gareth.

Doug M.

I think you're implying that you don't find it plausible, you think it's a ridiculous concept, and that your academic performance really does depend on your upbringing and educational opportunities. Fair enough, you've convinced me. Which brings us back to the original problem.

The implications are entirely different, Gareth.

Think it through. The evidence is that the marginal students don't benefit. You can draw one of three conclusions from that limited evidence:

(1) Abolish the schools because they are segregated to no concrete benefit;

(2) Keep the schools because the students who go there like it and indulging their preferences imposes no direct fiscal cost;

(3) Find other admissions criteria to attract marginal students who will benefit.

Once you give up on the idea that there are innate immutable race-linked characteristics, then the search is on for a workable option (3). But if you're a Bell Curve style racialist, well, then there's no point ... you ineluctably go to option (1).

Sort of ironic, actually.

That's true, but option (3) won't necessarily make the school more racially diverse.
In the New Zealand education system, you'd get burnt as a witch for trying to run a school like Stuyvesant in the public system, so I was curious about what the actual purpose of the selectivity is supposed to be. I haven't found much yet, but it is interesting that the school starting restricting applicants by academic achievement in 1919. Maybe it's less about any modern justification for selectivity, and more about tradition.

I went to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology for my last year of high school, the very first year it was open (1986). It was actually pretty cool being able to go to school with a lot of other science nerds, and it allowed me to take an incredibly challenging courseload full of AP classes with some really good teachers.

But, to tell the truth, most of those AP classes were also available at the school I'd gone to for the previous three years (Chantilly High). And there were some fine teacher back there, too. Most of the problems I'd encountered with bullies and such were over by the twelfth grade anyway, as classes got more elective and specialized and the worst junior criminals had dropped out.

Did TJHSST give me a leg up in college admissions/later success? In one way, it almost certainly did: I met a fantastic guidance counselor there who was an indefatigable guide through academic bureaucracy: she knew all the schools, all the scholarships, all the forms to fill out, all the people to talk to. But this is the kind of thing that could happen anywhere.

Was my admission there purely meritocratic? Pfft, I have no idea. Probably not. (There were some black students in my classes; I have no idea how many total. About the same fraction as back at Chantilly, I think, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything.)

Noel's pic of the track team is telling. If the student body lacks blacks, then the clubs and student organizations also exclude blacks. This seems counterproductive to developing good citizens of a majority-minority city.

A lot of the hate that the anti-test people are getting isn't coming from families who can afford to blow $100 per hour on personalized tutoring; it's coming from working-class families in neighborhoods like Flushing that are quite capital-poor but labor- and knowledge-rich. Families from those areas often have arrangements with each other like the one my mom has with several of her friends; the money changing hands is nominal at most and the kitchen table gets taken over by kids learning math, English, and test prep skills they never would have gotten in school.

The ones who'd be disadvantaged by getting rid of the test would most likely be these families; upper middle-class and wealthy parents are quite skilled at massaging resumes, portfolios, middle-school grades, interviews, etc. and quite frankly will probably get more bang for their buck via a holistic admissions process than via an exam-only one. Test prep IS a fairly definitive factor in how well you do, but only up to a point; you can pull up someone's score maybe 30-50 points MAX on the SHSAT through prep unless they're incredibly gifted but have never seen the material before.

A purely holistic admissions process would probably wind up increasing the number of white upper middle- and professional-class kids who get seats by a decently wide margin, while cutting out a whole bunch of working-class immigrant kids (whom the Specialized High Schools have always been dedicated to serving) and doing little or nothing for the impoverished minorities that it would in theory be designed to help.

Keeping it test-only but imposing different cutoffs for poor black and Hispanic kids would lead to more poor black and Hispanic kids getting in, but wouldn't necessarily lead to more of them graduating. Kids in that situation are probably no less intelligent, but have nowhere near the same level of exposure to the material as, their peers who made it in; that means that the Specialized High Schools would have to dedicate a significant chunk of their resources toward remedial programs early on.

Furthermore, the cutoff differential combined with what would probably be a very disproportionate group of poor black and Hispanic kids in remedial classes would probably lead to some very unhealthy racial narratives among the student body about "affirmative action kids" and "idiots who got special treatment because of their skin color" that would make the environment toxic for struggling kids of color and drag down those black and Hispanic kids who got in without needing the cutoff differential.

The only way to boost black and Hispanic enrollment in the Specialized High School system that I could see working without all kinds of nasty side effects is this:

-Run the test with the standard cutoffs for admission to the Specialized High Schools for everyone.

-Create a special program that runs after school and on Saturday or Sunday mornings starting in mid-April, then turn it into a full-day summer school program. Run the program as a Specialized High School preparatory boot camp, designed to ensure that everyone who gets through it will have the skills and academic background to succeed at a non-remedial level at any of the Big Three.

-Poor kids from underachieving middle schools who scored 50-75 points below the bottom cutoff for any of the Big Three would be told to pick a high school via the usual methods, but also offered admission into the Big Three boot camp program.

-Students who enter and pass through the Big Three boot camp program with strong grades would be offered admission at the Big Three high school of their choice, while students who refused admission or failed out would go to the alternate high school they selected.

By doing that you'd be able to get closer to admissions parity without compromising the schools' mission to serve the poor and working class, and without lowering the school's academic standards.

Noel, two of your fellow Stuy classmates are trying to get in touch with you. Drop us a note ASAP. Maria and Eric.


BLUF: Middle-class white parents are not sending their kids to Stuy because there are other decent options out there today, that were not there 26 years ago. This trend has enhanced the self-characterization of Stuy as the dog-eat-dog, cream-of-the-crop high school in the NYC Dept of Ed. The question of "Why does NYC need this kind of high school" becomes more legitimate.

We graduated with the author's older sister, by the way, JKR.

Joe has stopped talking to me over this issue. By God, it's loaded!

Small world!

As far as Joe not talking to you, correlation is not causation. Did he sign a memo about this?

FYI, talked to my dad, class of '62 about this, and he felt that NYC did need this kind of high school, that it was important to have a place where future Nobel Prize winners could congregate and learn together.

I detect sarcasm from the elder R. Which is hard to do on the interwebs!

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