By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The largest U.S. civil rights group plans to file a complaint on Thursday over the admissions test at New York City's specialized high schools, among the nation's most elite public schools, citing effective discrimination against black and Latino students, the group said.
The complaint with the U.S. Department of Education focuses on eight schools in the city, particularly on Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science, which boast stellar alumni including several Nobel laureates, famed actors and musicians, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
While more than half the population of New York City is black or Latino, black students made up only 1.2 percent of the Stuyvesant student body last year, while Latino students represented 2.4 percent, city data showed.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which is filing the complaint, said the highly competitive, 2-1/2-hour, multiple-choice Specialized High School Admissions Test was at fault for the disparity.
"Year after year, thousands of academically talented African-American and Latino students who take the test are denied admission to the Specialized High Schools at rates far higher than those for other racial groups," the NAACP said in a draft of its complaint shared with media outlets on Wednesday before the Thursday filing.
If the department investigates and finds New York is in breach of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it can sanction the city by withholding federal funding until the breach is resolved, the NAACP said.
The city's Department of Education said in a statement on Wednesday it was bound by state law to admit students based "solely on an exam."
"We want all of our students to have opportunities to prepare for the test no matter their zip code," it said, adding more black and Hispanic students were offered specialized high school seats last year than in the previous two years.
The NAACP said in its complaint that the test had never been shown to predict reliably a student's academic potential, and breached the Civil Rights Act by having an "unjustified, racially disparate impact."
It said that other elite, academically successful schools in New York City that use broader criteria such as a student's grade-point average, attendance, teacher recommendations, interviews and writing samples had far higher enrollments of black and Latino students.
"To use a standard test that has no demonstrative relationship to past academic achievements or future academic potential seems wrong," Damon Hewitt, the education director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an interview.
"Quite literally, a kid could have straights ‘A's from kindergarten to Grade 8, could have won a national spelling bee." he added, "But none of that matters - all that matters is the test."
Rapper Himanshu Suri, who was vice president of the Stuyvesant student union from 2001 to 2002, said knowledge of and preparation for the test varied widely across neighborhoods, and that the school, where Asians make up more than two-thirds of the student body, suffered for its lack of diversity.
"In the Asian community in Queens, from a very young age, you know about Stuyvesant, you know about that test," he said in an interview, adding the city should do more to reach students who may not have parents like his, who started talking about the test with him while he was still a pre-teen.
"These are schools for the brightest students in New York City," he added. "We're saying something wrong if we're saying New York City's brightest students are almost all Chinese or Korean."
(Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)