Testing at Center of New York City School Equity Controversies

K-12 Testing

Testing at Center of New York City School Equity Controversies ACORN, a national organization that organizes and advocates for low-income people, has called for suspending the use of test scores for admissions to New York City's elite science high schools. An ACORN study has found that enrollments at the three high schools is racially imbalanced because students in city school districts serving mostly low-income African American and Latino children are not prepared to take the entrance exams. While the long-term solution is to improve the quality of education for these students, ACORN calls for an interim measure in which the schools would "set aside a number of ninth grade slots for students from [under-performing middle schools] who will be evaluated using appropriate assessment techniques."


The ACORN study, which included an analysis of the content of the multiple-choice entrance exams by The Education Trust, found that enrollment in schools and classes that offer strong math and reading courses which prepare students well for the tests differs dramatically along racial lines. Districts enrolling the highest proportions of black and Latino children offer the fewest strong courses and send the fewest students to the elite high schools. Most admissions to the elite high schools come from private and parochial schools, followed by three public school districts with the smallest percentage of African American and Latino students.


Many gifted and talented programs that offer a higher quality elementary and middle school education for NYC children also require a test for admission, usually an IQ test. As a result, students who test well at a young age on the racially biased IQ tests are offered programs that lead to high-quality high schools and from there to colleges, while those who do not test as well are often consigned to failing schools. In this, New York is similar to Boston (see Examiner, Spring 1990) and other cities where test scores become a self-fulfilling, racially- discriminatory prophecy.


Last year, ACORN released a report critical of the ways in which segregation was effectively practiced in many of the city's gifted programs by requiring test scores and limiting the information given to African American and Hispanic parents. In response, Chancellor Rudy Crew proposed altering the criteria for admissions to those programs (see Examiner, Spring 1997). ACORN staff now charge that Crew has done little to actually implement changes that would open up access to high quality programs.


ACORN insists the fundamental goal must be to ensure a high quality education to all children. As their studies have shown, testing has played a critical role in perpetuating educational segregation and low-quality schooling for children of color. What ACORN has not yet investigated are the many ways in which schooling that focuses on narrow, norm- referenced, multiple-choice achievement tests undermines the quality of education for many students.



Many NYC public school students are doing fairly well, at least as compared to the group on whom the city's test was normed. This year, the average percentile score in reading on the California Achievement Test at grades 3-8 was 47.3, just under the national average of 50. Since that test fails to measure many important aspects of learning, it is impossible to know how NYC students are doing as measured by higher standards. The test results led Chancellor Crew to renew his previous assertion that every student in the city should be at or above grade level -- defined as the fiftieth percentile -- in reading at grade 3. In other words, no student in the city is to be below the national average, an unobtainable goal that will have the primary effect of causing teachers to focus even more heavily on the multiple-choice tests.


As in much of the nation, the primary problem in NYC is the failure to provide a decent education to many children of color and students from low income families. The nation still has not addressed this issue, and leaders continue to duck it by proposing yet more low-level testing.


For a copy of ACORN's Secret Apartheid II: Race, Regents and Resources, New York ACORN Schools Office, 845 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 11226, (718) 693-6700 x231