Volume 94, Number 5

November 2019

A Single Score No More: Rethinking the Admissions System for New York City’s Specialized High Schools to Preserve Academic Excellence and Promote Student Diversity

Priscilla A. Consolo

Despite decades of litigation and court case rulings, pursuing the goal of diverse student populations in schools, including through affirmative action policies, remains a controversial subject. In the present day, discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity by educational institutions is still a divisive issue in the United States. In our nation’s most populous municipality, this contentious subject has been debated as a result of the lack of diversity at New York City’s eight “testing” Specialized High Schools (SHSs). Due to the disproportionately low number of Black and Hispanic/Latino students admitted, the prestigious SHSs have not been spared from allegations of racial and ethnic discrimination occurring in their admissions process. Over the past decade, critics have claimed that the admissions system for the SHSs, renowned for their rigorous, career-based academic curricula and ability to produce successful alumni, is discriminatory. Relatedly, there has been a renewed focus on promoting student body diversity in these elite schools, including a plan announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in June 2018 to increase the number of Black and Hispanic/Latino students admitted. This Note explores the flaws of the Mayor’s proposal and presents an alternative plan for reforming the SHSs’ admissions system—a timely and controversial topic—that fits within the Supreme Court’s doctrine on affirmative action in educational contexts. 

This Note begins by providing background information on the SHSs and their current admissions process. Then, this Note discusses the schools’ lack of student body diversity and past efforts aimed to address this issue, including de Blasio’s recent plan. Next, this Note proposes a novel admissions process for these eight schools, which was created based on the Supreme Court’s precedent on educational affirmative action and the guidance of several experts in this field of law. Under this proposal, a semi-holistic, multi-factor process involving four measures of academic performance—SHSAT score, GPA, rank in eighth grade graduating class, and rank among eighth graders citywide—would be used to evaluate applicants, as well as an explicit fifth factor of diversity. This plan would allow the City’s Department of Education to admit a critical mass of underrepresented minority students, similar to the approach used by institutions of higher-education. By analyzing the Court’s recent affirmative action jurisprudence in the educational context, this Note argues that despite the legal challenges imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment, this plan would allow the City to preserve these schools’ standards of high scholastic achievement, as well as admit increased numbers of Black and Hispanic/Latino students to these elite public high schools in a constitutionally-permissible way.