Opinion | Reopen Schools, and Reform Them

The achievement gap in New York’s segregated and unequal schools is poised to become a chasm in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 700,000 of the city’s 1 million public school students are learning from home. The city is still working to convince teachers and parents that the schools are safe, a process that will continue well into next year — until vaccination is widespread. Many students, including homeless children, are still fighting just to gain reliable access to broadband internet access.

Against the backdrop of such inequality, it was welcome news Friday when Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would make long overdue changes to middle and high school admissions processes. For at least one year, the city will eliminate the use of grades and other screens in the middle school admissions process, and will use a lottery system instead. The city will also end a practice that allowed some high schools to give preference in admissions to students who live near a school. Both measures could racially integrate some of the city’s most selective schools, which are largely white and Asian, and are an important step toward a fairer city.

Unfortunately, the measures won’t change the high-stakes admissions exams used by its most sought-after public high schools. In the coming months, it looks likely that New York will plow ahead with those tests, which have left all but a handful of Black and Latino students shut out of the city’s most competitive schools. This year, the exams will work like accelerant in a giant conflagration of inequality.

Few voices have articulated the unfairness and absurdity of continuing this tradition more clearly than the public high school students across New York City who have protested and organized in recent years to demand an end to the admissions tests and screening policies. Some of the high schools in question, known as specialized high schools, are required by state law to use a common exam as the single point of entry. Another exam, for Hunter College High School in Manhattan, a public school overseen by the City University of New York, is administered separately. The specialized high school exam is scheduled to be held next month. Hunter’s exam, which is usually held in January, has been postponed indefinitely. In a statement, officials at Hunter said they were still weighing how to approach admissions for September, and were “looking at holistic ways to remedy the diversity concerns.”

With the exams delayed, students at Hunter see an opportunity to abolish them entirely. In a letter to the school administration, students questioned why the school had not done so already, even as cities like Boston suspended similar admissions tests over concerns they would worsen inequality in the midst of the pandemic. “Their leaders are recognizing that the dual public health and equity emergencies they are facing necessitate suspending their tests and taking action to ensure fair access for highly qualified Black and Latinx students,” the Hunter students wrote. “Why isn’t Hunter doing the same?”

Hunter’s three-hour exam is for most students the sole point of entry into the school, which is just 2.4 percent Black and 6.2 percent Latino, in a district that is 25 percent Black and 41 percent Hispanic overall. The student activists at Hunter have a list of complaints and demands. They argue that the exam unfairly disadvantages Black and Hispanic students, who are less likely to have access to extensive test preparation. They say they have been denied the opportunity to attend school with New Yorkers of other races and socioeconomic backgrounds. They also describe a difficult environment for the Black and Latino students and students from lower-income households who do attend.

Chloë Rollock, a senior at Hunter who said she is one of just a handful of Black students in her grade, said being the only Black student in class “when we’re talking about slavery, or things that are going on in New York City right now that have to do with Black people,” had often been a painful experience. “Everyone is always looking at me, and I always know it,” said Ms. Rollock, 17. “It really reminds me, I’m this outlier. I questioned my worthiness being at Hunter. It made me question my own self-worth.”

High school students across the city have raised many of the same issues in recent years, demanding changes to admissions policies by staging walkouts, protests, marches and a sit-in at City Hall.

The Hunter students are also raising a more immediate concern, about the harm that could be caused by convening thousands of teenagers from across the city to sit for a three-hour exam in the middle of a pandemic. “We really don’t want the Hunter test to turn into a super-spreader event,” said Aruna Das, 15, who attends Hunter.

Hunter officials didn’t immediately have any comment on Friday. City officials said the specialized high school exam will be administered in each test-taker’s middle school to reduce travel and to allow more distance between applicants during the test.

Eliminating Hunter’s test could add needed momentum to efforts to overturn the state law requiring New York’s eight specialized high schools to use an exam as the sole criterion for admission. That elite group of public schools, which includes Stuyvesant High School, is 11 percent Black and Latino while the city’s schools are 70 percent Black and Latino overall.

New York is the only large district in the country to use a single exam for admissions to its top public high schools. But efforts to eliminate the specialized high school exam, known as the SHSAT, have been met with fierce resistance from many white and Asian parents, whose children make up a majority of students at the schools.

Other powerful opposition has come from high-profile alumni of the specialized schools, like the cosmetics heir Ron Lauder and the city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams. Mr. Lauder has supported tutoring efforts aimed at helping Black and Hispanic students succeed on the test, while also funding a lobbying campaign to preserve the exam. Mr. Williams, who attended Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the specialized schools, has called for the expansion of gifted and talented programs in lower grades to help better prepare Black and Hispanic students for the test. “I got that acceptance because of the SHSAT. If left to grades alone, it is unlikely I would’ve been admitted, or that I would have been able to accomplish all that I have,” he told a New York State Assembly committee last year.

Clementine Roach, a senior at Hunter College High School, said the attachment of some alumni to the exams was mystifying. “We don’t think that’s what makes us special,” said Ms. Roach, 17.

Instead of allowing the pandemic to worsen longstanding inequities, New York could seize on the disruption to fix its broken high school admissions practices at all its schools. Several promising proposals have emerged in recent years. Instead of a single exam, Albany could allow the city to use state test scores, class rank and other measures. These important reforms will require the State Legislature to overturn Hecht-Calandra, the 1971 law that requires three of the specialized high schools — Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School — to use an exam as the only point of entry.

Changing admissions policies to allow talented Black and Latino students — indeed, all students — a fair shot at attending the city’s top high schools should be the easy part. The far harder challenge facing the city in the coming years is how to prevent millions of children who were already vulnerable before the pandemic from falling far further behind.

One in every 10 public school students in New York is homeless. Many live in communities that have been hit hard by the coronavirus, while others have disabilities that have made remote learning especially difficult.

In the coming year, New York must do everything possible to identify these students, and make sure they don’t get left behind.

The first task is to assess where each student is academically, according to education experts like Tim Daly, the chief executive of 9 n, an education nonprofit. Mr. Daly said the most straightforward way is to use next year’s state exams, though it needn’t be the only measure. Children who are behind will need an action plan, one with serious buy-in from parents.

Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public policy research group, suggested using surveys to determine what kind of life changes students have faced since the pandemic started. She said New York would almost certainly need more social workers and counselors to help students process trauma — a task that may be difficult given the city’s bleak fiscal circumstances.

Once virtual learning is behind us, getting students up to speed academically may require a dedicated, citywide campaign. That could mean a greater focus on parent-teacher conferences, an intensive tutoring program and extra learning time in summer or after school. These are just the kind of programs that can be expanded in the coming years to address longstanding achievement gaps.

In the 19th century, Horace Mann, the education reformer, described public education as “the great equalizer” of the conditions of men. How sad, then, that New York’s public schools have for years now been a mirror of the city’s enormous inequities. As the city emerges from the pandemic, it has a chance to right that grievous wrong, and a responsibility to build something far better.

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