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.
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 that has been interpreted to require 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 over all.
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 S.H.S.A.T., 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 better prepare Black and Hispanic students for the test. “I got that acceptance because of the S.H.S.A.T. 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 would require the State Legislature to overturn Hecht-Calandra, the 1971 law that explicitly 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.