Bronx Highschool Of Science
The perception of American education as a whole is primarily generalized to its top universities like MIT, Stanford, and the Ivy League. But how much of this reputation is grounded in reality? To question the actual rigor outside of tertiary education in America, we interviewed Mr. Fomin, a mathematics teacher at The Bronx High School of Science, one of the most prestigious high schools in the U.S.
Before discussing our first question, we must provide context to the New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) Regents Exams. Regents Exams are a series of standardized tests for high school students in New York that evaluate skills in core subjects like English, Mathematics, Sciences, History, and Foreign Languages. A passing grade, 65 out of 100, on five regents exams is necessary for a student’s graduation. These tests are by no means rigorous, yet each has a heavy curve (i.e., in the January 2023 Living Environment (Biology) Regents Exam, a raw score of 41/100 would net a student a passing grade.)
Students: Regents Exams and grade inflation. Why do you think standardized test scores are declining on average, and do you have a solution?
Mr. Fomin: Let’s try to identify the most important reasons. First, keep in mind that grades are not only declining, but we also need to go into how these grades are constructed. I graded students from other Bronx schools, and the results were very concerning. You must understand that certain test questions are too shallow to properly differentiate between students who know a little [concerning the content of the material] and students who know everything but make a tiny mistake. You [New York State] can’t construct a test that allows you to differentiate between these students. It goes into the design of the test. On top of it, the curve is designed such that it completely obscures a large percentage of students who not just fail tests but also those who pass with low scores. These grades are meaningless. They show nothing of the full depth of the problem. That is number one: when we try to mask the problem instead of grading it.
But why do Regents exams give so generously to its underperforming students? The answer is simple – to push students up towards graduation and, consequently, not incentivize them to learn curricular material diligently. Knowing this, it can be inferred that the average New York student lacks dedication to academics, potentially an elusive cultural issue. As a result, grade inflation is utilized to compensate for scores, leading to other students becoming complacent and creating a vicious cycle where the value of learning is forgotten. This problem goes hand-in-hand with our next topic, Grade Inflation, and how its prevalence represents one of the most oppressive educational issues – masking students’ different abilities instead of recognizing them.
Continued, Mr. Fomin: Since grades cannot fall below a certain arbitrary level, teachers try to avoid this by making tests easier and ensuring grades are higher. However, we must acknowledge and accept that students have different abilities. No teacher can teach a student’s abilities. They can only develop them the best. How do we develop all students to the best of their abilities while giving students a better aptitude and encouraging them to follow that ability without holding them back? By designing a philosophy of teaching [passionate teaching] to equalize that.
When the average student presumably doesn’t regard education as important, or if dedicated students with less skill in a particular subject do poorly, mass grade inflation isn’t the answer. Instead, we must strive for a truly equal education where we are comfortable with diverse and unequal results. To bring this to fruition and slowly renew integrity within education, we need passionate teachers. A passionate teacher motivates the undedicated student. A passionate teacher pushes underachieving students to wrestle with learning. Passionate teachers (and increased funding) are our solution to the final challenge in New York’s High School education system that we will discuss – the SHSAT and its Discovery program.
Short for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, the SHSAT is the entrance exam for the best high schools in New York including The Bronx High School of Science. For the 25,000 students that take this exam each year, getting a spot in one of these highly selective schools (with some acceptance rates lower than 1%) is no trivial matter.
Consequently, the SHSAT has been a topic of controversy. Historically, Asians have earned the majority of seats at Specialized High Schools. And even in 2023, 53% of students in these Specialized High Schools are Asian, while racial minorities like Blacks and Latinos make up for just a combined 9.7%. In order to increase equal opportunities, New York implemented the Discovery Program, where students from low-income backgrounds can be admitted to Specialized High Schools with significantly lower scores (in 2018, admitted Discovery student scores were between 469 and 481. The cutoff for Stuyvensent, another Specialized High School, was 559.)
Although the Discovery Program’s cause is noble, it comes at many costs. Because 20% of Specialized High School Students are admitted through the Discovery Program each year, 20% of prospective students must also be stripped of their rightfully earned seats. As Mr. Fomin says, “You cannot put 10 pounds of grain into a 5-pound bag. It will not fit.” So, how was this handled? The decision was made as follows: arbitrarily raise the cut-off score from 530 to 540 to 545 and deny acceptance to the students who originally would have had uncontested admission. Is this fair? And why does New York keep this information confidential? Most likely because public outrage would ensue.
Knowing that the Diversity Program is inherently flawed, a question arises: how do we increase income and racial diversity in elite high schools without using dishonest, nontransparent practices? Instead of boosting students up (and, in the process, dragging other students down), we need to provide quality education to low-income schools with increased funding and more passionate teachers. While simple on paper, it takes much more to reverse a disfigured education system. So if we want change, the time is now. The public needs to address the true culprits of New York’s, and America’s, slipping education.
“I would like to get all educators and politicians in a room and ask them this question: Do you want to give better opportunities for students who want to learn? And I can assure you, all of them will answer Yes. Disagreement is not about whether or not students of all grounds should get greater opportunity to learn; it’s about how we will work towards this goal” – Mr. Fomin, mathematics teacher at The Bronx High School of Science