Can the de Blasio Specialized High School Schools Admissions Plan Avert the Disastrous City University Open Admissions Program? Or, Was Open Admission a Success?

The de Blasio plan to replace the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT)  with an admissions based on class standing in middle schools and state test scores was introduced in the Assembly and pushed into the next session, beginning in January, 2019.

Legislation sponsored by Assembly member Charles Barron to create a new admissions system for New York City’s specialized high schools (A.10427a) was today reported out of the Assembly Education Committee. This is a first step in addressing this issue, and I will be having conversations with Assembly members and various stakeholders to determine how to proceed in order to best serve New York City’s school children. The Assembly Majority will work deliberatively, speaking with all the affected communities, so that together we can find a resolution that benefits all of New York City’s students.

I am told that legislators have been flooded with messages opposing the bill, and, controversial bills rarely come to the floor. No legislator likes to create enemies, especially enemies who are well-organized and well-funded; the Assembly Speaker, wisely, decided to push the bill down the road (Read Speaker Heastie’s comments here).

The bill, which I believe is poorly crafted, replaces the SHSAT admissions test with a process as follows,

… students attending public schools located in the city of New York  who are in the top three percent of their eighth grade class, as  calculated  based  on  multiple  measures  of student achievement …  … and  who  achieve  a  composite  score above  or  at  the  cut-off composite score for the school such students have committed themselves to attend, …  provided  that  such students shall also rank in the top quarter of public school students in the eighth grade citywide based  on   such multiple measures of student achievement, and provided further that   openings  shall  be  reserved for such students at each specialized high   school as set forth in subdivision seven of this section; 

Yes, the bill leaves many questions unanswered, the bottom line, top students within individual schools across the city will have access to the specialized high schools and students with higher achievement in high achieving middle school will not achieve a spot.

I’m not going to muse on the fairness/unfairness of the current SHSAT process or the fairness/unfairness of the new proposal; the bill, as I read it, would increase numbers of students of color and reduce numbers of Asian students.  The proposal is reminiscent of the late sixties battle over the admission process to the four-year CUNY schools. For those of us of a certain age the sixties is burned in our memory, for some, sex, drugs and rock and roll, maybe not in that order, for others a free education at a CUNY school.

Today #blacklivematter and #metoo dominate the landscape, football players knelling during the national anthem, Trump’s blatantly racist tweets and comments, the criminalization of immigrants, the nation appears divided and reminiscent of the angst of the sixties..

The very survival of the nation seemed at risk in the sixties.

Riots in Detroit, Newark and Los Angeles, scores of deaths, National Guard troops in the streets, massive ant-war demonstrations, civil rights marches, the assassination of JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and, in September 1968 a two month racially toxic teachers strike.

Student sit-ins broke out at Queens College, Brooklyn College and Columbia protesting the absence of minority students. The New York State budget made drastic cuts in the CUNY budget, the president of City College and department heads announced their resignation, the CUNY chancellor announced the colleges would not accept an opening class in September. Students and community activists occupied City College to protest the overwhelmingly white student body; classes were suspended, the occupiers and the college commenced negotiations and at the end of May, 1969 announced a new policy: open admissions. (Read a contemporary account here).

Students would no longer have to pass rigorous entrance exams; graduates of high schools could gain admittance to the four-year city colleges.

Did Open Admissions open opportunity at the four year colleges to students of color or turn the colleges into remedial institutions filled with student without college level skills?

Almost a half century later Open Admissions is still an emotional topic.

I was at an art gallery out on the end of Long Island wearing my CCNY baseball cap. A gentleman pointed to the cap, “What year?” The topic immediately turned to, from the point of view of the gentleman, how Open Admissions ruined his beloved alma mater.

A recent book, “Changing the Odds: Open Admissions and the Life Chances of the Disadvantaged,” by David Lavin and David Hyllegard,

… examines the impact of what they call the most ambitious effort ever made to promote equality of opportunity in American higher education, the open-admissions experiment at the City University of New York (CUNY). From 1970 through 1976, the seventeen-campus, two hundred thousand student CUNY system guaranteed admission to all high school graduates. Test scores were not considered in the admissions process. All those with at least an 80 average in college preparatory courses or who ranked in the top half of their high school classes were deemed qualified for a four-year college. Everyone else was eligible for community college enrollment.

The initial results of the new policy were not surprising: the size of the CUNY freshman class grew by 75%, and the number of Black and Hispanic enrollees quadrupled at the system s four-year colleges.

I spoke with a CCNY graduate from the mid-seventies about Open Admissions, he laughed, “If wasn’t only for minority kids, I would never have gotten in, I’m a big fan.”

The Clarion, the newsletter of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the CUNY union, in a February 2018 article  argues,

The deleterious consequences of dismantling open admissions were brought to light in The Atlantic: “Since it went through an aggressive, system-wide overhaul that began in 2000, the City University of New York’s top five colleges – Baruch, Hunter, Brooklyn, Queens and City – have been raising admission standards and enrolling fewer freshmen from New York City high schools. Among the results has been the emergence of a progressively starker two-tier system: CUNY’s most prestigious colleges now increasingly favor Asian and white freshmen, while the system’s black and Latino students end up more and more in its overcrowded two-year community colleges.”

According to the 2010 census data the black plus Hispanic population in New
York City was 50% and the black plus Hispanic population at CCNY  (2017-18) is 57%.  The diversity numbers at the college mirror NYC numbers; however, how do we measure school success?

In a major research study, Raj Chetty and his team reviewed millions of data sets to analyze rates of social mobility: colleges moving students from the bottom 40 percent by income to the top 40 percent. Of the many hundreds of colleges examined the City College of New York, my beloved CCNY has the second highest student social mobility rate (Check out the research as parsed by the NY Times here) in the nation. Pretty impressive!!

Was Open Admissions a success or a failure? Was Open Admissions sabotaged through budget cuts and a lack of supports with the colleges?  Does the Chetty study tell us that in spite of budget cuts the CUNY colleges have been extraordinarily effective in carrying out their mission?

I attended the CCNY graduation last week, the salutatorian, a woman who arrived from China in 2008 without knowing a word of English graduating at the top of her class ten years later with a degree in bio-medical engineering.

After the November election democrats may be a majority in the Senate; however the democratic side of the aisle in the Senate has always been fractious. The last two democratic leaders were convicted of crimes and left in disgrace and the former Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) members, while in the democratic conference will vote as they please on controversial issues.

Next year is also the year that Mayoral Control has to be reauthorized in the legislature and Corey Johnson, the speaker of the Council and Mark Tryger, the chair of the City Council education committee have voiced dissatisfaction with the current shape of mayoral control in the city.

Our new chancellor, six weeks on the job, has been a spectator who has made a number of “feel good” speeches and a few, very few comments that he rapidly backed away from: can he become a major voice? While the “ink” has been all around the Specialized High Schools there are well over a hundred screened schools: will the mayor or the chancellor take any action to change test-score based enrollment policies at the screened schools, or, the zones of the schools that limit applications from students across the city? (See an excellent Chalkbeat article here ).

The leader of the teacher union, Michael Mulgrew, made an interesting proposal in regard to admission at screened schools that has not received any discussion, use the 16-66-16 Education Option guidelines for high school admissions. (66% of kids within one standard deviation of the mean, 16% above and 16% below).

We should work towards a solution that permits all high achieving kids, BTW, that term requires a more nuanced definition, to receive the education that is appropriate to their skills, ideally in an integrated setting. We can’t set kids against each other by race, ethnicity, language or gender.

Any ideas?

3 responses to “Can the de Blasio Specialized High School Schools Admissions Plan Avert the Disastrous City University Open Admissions Program? Or, Was Open Admission a Success?

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    Integrating the NYC Public Schools is the most important objective of our time. However, tackling the most difficult aspects of such a campaign first will only give rise to the opposition that will defeat it.


  2. Open enrollment lowered college admission standards, and forced the spawning of remedial English and Math classes CCNY never had, but now needed. All to help admit young men who were draft (VietNam) exempt only if they attended college. Once college students became draftable, the poor man’s Harvard became anybody’s community college.


  3. It is an inconvenient truth that all ethnicities are not equal in intelligence. If jews have an average iq of 115, asians 106, whites 100, and blacks 85, socioeconomic outcomes cannot be equal. I attended Queens college before open admissions. It was an excellent school: bright students got C’s in most classes. After open admissions, students who couldn’t do academically what I could do in junior high school were admitted.


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