There they go again: The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has filed a complaint with the federal Education Department claiming that the admissions test for the city’s specialized high schools bar black and Latino students. The LDF is off-base on this one: The test is race neutral. Of course I’m annoyed that the percentage of black students at my alma mater,Bronx Science,is much lower than in 1976. But I favor keeping the admissions test in place for the Big Three (Science, Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant) and Staten Island Tech to enshrine merit-based selection,as intended in state law. For solutions,we need to look elsewhere. On one level, the city’s been trying hard to increase black and Hispanic admission rates to the “elite” high schools. Chancellor Dennis Walcott spearheaded initiatives to diversify these schools by identifying, recruiting and better preparing black and Hispanic students for the test. (And, these initiatives are now race-neutral –open to all.) In part as a result, more black and Hispanic students this year were offered seats at a specialized high school than in the previous two years. But the level is still low, because the city has had trouble recruiting black and Hispanic middle-school candidates. Fewer than half of those who participate in Walcott’s program eventually take the test — and the pass rate for those who do is abysmally low.
Sadly, the problems start much earlier. Local NAACP chapters know this — because they themselves have great difficulty recruiting student participants for ACT-SO, their science and technology competition. Too many of us have come to have low expectations –which translate into lowered self-esteem and fear of failure. The soft bigotry of low expectations taints parents,teachers and administrators. It greatly undermines our children. Some critics of the admissions test propose offering admission to the top students at every middle school. But the academic quality at city middle schools is, to put it politely, uneven. Far too many of them barely prepare students for regular high school,much less an “elite” one. But this is at least getting closer to the real problem: Our miserable middle schools have become breeding grounds for high-school dropouts and teen pregnancy. We must fix our middle schools, lengthen the school year and provide accelerated academic tracks for bright kids.
Some others have to step up, too: Black and Hispanic parents must have higher expectations, demand more of their children and their teachers and reject their fear of failure. Schools like Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant should be lifelines for promising black students trying to stay afloat in a system that’s a morass of chaos and low expectations.
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