Scrap the Screen!

Jan 20, 2021 by

Mayor DeBlasio and Chancellor Carranza ( Mr. Independent-Minded)  are highly critical of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SSHAT) for reasons that make sense.

They feel that its role as an exclusive selection criterion for most screened schools associated with academic excellence was unfair.  Supporters of the SHST insist that it is an objective and effective measure of merit that should be preserved.

That is a flawed but not necessarily egregious position. Whether it is or not, depends on its underlying motivation.  Is it based purely on intellectual argument or is there a taint of implicit bias?

Either way,  the SSHAT is ultimately indefensible. Research has shown that a single high-stakes test is not a reliable indicator. 

The fraudulence is cross-cultural.  Even the students who benefit from it are its victims.

Recognition of this neutral scientific fact has resulted in education-policy changes around the world. That’s why the notorious “11plus” exam was abolished in England.

Exams like the SSHAT segregate under-represented and disadvantaged minorities and are fatally-flawed scientifically. Our objection to them should be both academic and visceral.

State Senator John Liu, who heads the education committee, recently announced that “this administration will not be in a position to make any wholesale policy changes without a public discourse.” Liu added that there are no plans to alter the existing state law governing student selection for schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech. 

So the SHSAT persists in drawing breath, albeit with an inhaler.

Mayor DeBlasio contrives himself as a social justice warrior who marches to a different drum. Often a snare drum. 

Has he freed himself from the fetters of his own privileges or in his own life partaken from the menu of special access?  Are he and those closest to him voluntarily bound by the implementation of the egalitarianism or are they content to be exceptions?

Do they enjoy personalized favoritism?  Even if they don’t solicit it, do they refuse it when offered to them? Do other pampered folks who have long contact lists of influential “movers and shakers” need to worry about school screenings?

The SHSAT is a political football and a bruising game of tackle with perhaps non-deliberate racial overtones.

Folks who swear up and down that they believe in unity, equality and healing sometimes avail themselves of the irresistible lure of special treatment.  There is a lot of stealth and hypocrisy among some self-professed devotees of equal rights.

Many of them wear their own anti-bias biases on their sleeves like good-luck charms to protect them from scrutiny of their true feelings as betrayed by their own lifestyles and advantage -seeking. The privileges they renounce as they tout universal equality often turn out to be their most valued possessions.  

They will drive their elitism like a hot-wired vehicle down the road of their life.

Maybe our eyes are playing tricks on us when powerful people of all political persuasions seem so cozy  with their bonuses and perks, as the concierges of their Quogue hideaways shoo away the bearers of complexions that they secretly feel don’t fit into in their community.

Screening kids for high schools doesn’t sit well with them, but screening those who seek to be their neighbors is quite a different matter.   Typecasting character actors in movies and on co-op boards is one things; typecasting races in day-to-day human affairs quite another.

The proposed replacement criteria for admission to specialized high schools will result in a far more balanced and meritorious standard.  However there is a danger that must be anticipated and preemptively managed.

It is related to public perception.

Some people will, at least initially, make the false connection that minority students who were accepted under the revised procedure are of a lower academic caliber and are benefiting from “social engineering”.

This is more than patronizing and insulting.  It is a prescription for aggravated ignorance and perpetuation of intolerance and disrespect. 

And of course it defies truth.

No matter what programs and policies are instituted on any level within the public the private sectors, they will be little more than gestures with little unifying effect unless it is made everywhere apparent that historically disenfranchised people have excelled and triumphed in the most competitive areas.

Not because they were given unearned gifts, but due to their precocity alone.

I think of Jessie Norman, the greatest operatic Wagnerian soprano of the late 20th century, or Kathleen Battle, whom Herbert Von Karajan  one of the greatest orchestra conductors revered, or Misty Copeland, principal dancer of the finest ballet ensemble in America, or Wynton Marsalis, the brilliant trumpeter and composer who has merged the artistic bloodstreams of jazz and classical music.

I mention them because of my particular interest. 

But we must emphasize their counterparts in every are of human endeavor and achievement, such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson astrophysist , Katherine Johnson’ pioneering NASA mathematician, and countless ( yet too often uncounted)  other geniuses in economics, marine biology and medical research and  other “hard sciences” .

Their credentials and their reputations were not charitable awards. They were brilliant legacies wrought by their own energies and gifts.

We must celebrate those groups who have gotten the short end of the stick through SSHAT and similar bars by underscoring their contributions beyond such precincts as sports, entertainment, and politics.

It is patronizing and condescending to stress these at the expense and exclusion of other riches of genius.

If these were covered more thoroughly and memorialized in the mainstream media, it would go a long way to decisively rebutting the critics who appallingly allege that minorities are being literally given a “pass”.  It might alter their hearts as well.

And we should also honor those who are mavericks and our ideological opponents, because treating Blacks and Latinos as monolithic in their views is a unique aspersion on their individuality.

Of course there will remain incurable die-hard racists who will not respond to even the most aggressive treatment of truth.  Leave them behind in the dust.

As the future of the SHSAT and similar high-stakes standardized tests hangs in the balance of school board deliberations, let’s concentrate on the longer-term destiny and dignity of our nation.

Ron Isaac

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