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February 21, 2021

NYC School Reformer Takes On Admissions Testing

In 1993, the students at Washington Elementary School in Union, N.J., were asked the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” in a questionnaire for the school’s yearbook.

David Adams —a Black fourth-grader who had been rejected that year by the school’s gifted and talented program—wrote “teacher” in the blank.

“I wanted to be part of building up my community, and I saw education as a really important way to do that,” Mr. Adams said.

The 36-year-old will get that chance on March 1, when he takes over as the CEO of the Urban Assembly, a nonprofit organization that oversees 23 New York City public middle and high schools, including eight Career & Technical Education schools and two all-girls schools.

Mr. Adams is currently Urban Assembly’s senior director of strategy. One of his priorities as CEO will include advocating on behalf of the city’s low-income students and students of color in the coming spring debate about the future of controversial school-admissions screenings and elementary-level gifted and talented programs. Mr. Adams, whose schools include 9,000 students, has already been lobbying city council members and officials, mayoral candidates and state lawmakers to get rid of admissions-screening practices in schools.

He has joined opposition to “screening practices that schools use to exclude students from their learning environments,” saying that “all students should have access to quality opportunities.”

On the other side of the continuing testing debate are parent advocacy groups such as Place NYC, which believes that the diversity concerns can be addressed without ending the programs. Place NYC warns that if gifted and talented and screening programs are drastically overhauled or abolished, families might move out of the city, switch their students to private schools, opt for the charter-school lottery or be forced to hire tutors. But “poor kids who need to be academically challenged will be hurt the most,” said co-president Yiatin Chu.

In the coming months, Mr. Adams says he will be penning Op-ed columns, speaking at public meetings, and hosting and sponsoring mayoral forums and panels on equity and gifted-and-talented screening programs.

Urban Assembly schools post higher English and math college readiness scores than most other New York City schools. The network’s graduation rate of 86% is 7 percentage points higher than the citywide average, and almost 80% of UA students enroll in college within six months, Mr. Adams said.

On average, 23% of students who enter Urban Assembly high schools are proficient in English Language Arts, as measured by middle-school state tests. By graduation, that average jumps to 85%, based on New York State Regents Exams. The incoming average proficiency for math is 18%. By graduation, that number increases to 66%, he said.

The city’s Education Department has publicly opposed the city’s gifted and talented programs partly because Black and Latino students are underrepresented in the selective programs. Mayor Bill de Blasio has long argued that the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test that determines who gets into the city’s most selective high schools such as Stuyvesant High School should be scrapped but hasn’t been able to persuade Albany lawmakers to eliminate it. Soon after taking over as chancellor in 2018, DOE Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza called screening children by academic ability for admissions antithetical to public education.

The DOE will administer the preschooler test for admission to gifted-and-talented elementary programs for the final time this spring. The mayor said that after that, the DOE will go through an intensive public engagement process in the spring and the summer to determine the future of gifted-and-talented testing.

Supporters of screening say it helps high-performing students learn at a faster pace, allowing talented students to improve by being educated alongside similarly talented students.

Immediate past Urban Assembly board chairman Rev. Jacques DeGraff said he expects Mr. Adams to be “a lifeline to young people in the most vulnerable communities” in the debate for the selective programs to be repealed or drastically revamped.

By the time he reached high school, Mr. Adams was enrolled in classes for the talented and gifted, but today thinks such opportunities should be more widespread.

The city, he said, needs to “reframe the debate from giving access to some kids to delivering equitable education to all kids.”



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