The Texas Two Step

My father was a partner in a big New York law firm, a member of the New York University Law Review and he raised two great kids. But of all his achievements in life, he was perhaps proudest of being a 1960 graduate of Stuyvesant High School in New York City. Nine years after his death, I still revel in his memories when I wear his prized, tattered and torn Stuyvesant letterman’s jacket to his grandson’s basketball games.

I wonder what he would think of my support for a proposed change to the admission standards at Stuyvesant and other elite public high schools in New York. Under a current proposal, the top students from each New York City middle school would earn admittance, rather than those who scored highest on one standardized test. My dad made Stuyvesant under the old system.

Like my father, I was a big believer in standardized tests—in large part because I was a big beneficiary of them. I scored extremely well on my LSAT and SAT. I mention this not to declare myself “smart,” but to provide context to my doubt today about the importance and objectivity of standardized tests. Point blank, I wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting top scores if I had to face the challenges many underprivileged kids face every day.

As a proud board member of a terrific inner-city charter school in Baltimore, I see first-hand the problems of underprivileged children. We have made efforts to assist our students, including bringing in tutors and third-party internet services that specialize in improving standardized test scoring. These tutoring methods work and have raised the scores materially, but only to a point.

Despite our efforts, our students’ test scores simply aren’t in the same league as their peers in private schools and most suburban school districts. Months of preparation can’t overcome a lifetime of disadvantages. Grit is simply not enough. In short, standardized tests are important as a measure, but using them as the sole measure is flat out unfair and needs to end. I’m not alone in this opinion. The University of Chicago last week announced that it will no longer consider standardized tests for admissions.

The catastrophe in many big-city public schools is “opt-out.” For a whole host of well-known reasons, the better-off often opt out of city public-school systems and send their kids to private or parochial schools. Many more move out of the cities entirely. “Opt-out” adversely affects poor students in several ways. Rich kids are no better than poor ones, but, through their parents, they have “voice” and the ability to cause positive change in schools that poor kids tragically don’t. Further, the interaction of rich and poor kids creates empathy, the absence of which may be the leading cause of political dysfunction in America today. The proposed change to elite-school admission standards may lead to a reduction in opt-out if the ticket to admission is based on thriving in an economically diverse city middle school. In short, school integration is essential not just to strengthen public schools, but to strengthen society.

Public education is the most important issue in America today, and it is vitally important to the commercial real estate industry. The ability to build affordable housing projects in affluent areas is invariably quashed by the school issue. In retail, automation is accelerating due to a shortage of lower-skilled labor. And every office-using employer in America is struggling to find highly skilled talent. Tragically, bad schools bear much of the blame.

Even though I advocate for minimizing the importance of standardized tests for elite high school admissions and other purposes, the burden of this proposal falls entirely on the middle and lower classes. That isn’t fair and is a big reason why the pushback against this idea is so fierce. What also must happen is to end legacy admissions at all state- and city-funded colleges and universities. If standardized tests are unfair, legacy admissions are worse and the state should not fund them.

Is this a radical idea?  The state of Texas has implemented a similar system. Texas guarantees admission to a state college or university for the top graduates from every Texas public high school rather than for those who score highest on standardized tests and has banned legacy-based admissions to all Texas state colleges. Killing legacy admissions is the second critical step in the “Texas Two Step,” without which the privileged class has no incentive to consider public schools. By bringing their “voice” with them, the well-to-do will make public schools better for all. By making more elite college and university slots available to middle-class and poor kids, the bitter pill of the first step in the Texas Two Step will be easier to swallow for those adversely impacted by eliminating the standardized test as the sole means for admission.

I fear my father is rolling in his grave over this blog. Admission to Stuyvesant and the perceived objectivity of the admission test made him proud. But I hope he’s prouder today that I am proposing to change it.

By Spencer Levy, Americas Head of @CBREResearch | Senior Economic Advisor