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Another Voice: Investigation of City Honors requires more than a cursory look at equity

By Becca Bass

The pending investigation into the equitability of City Honors’ admissions process has already proven to be an emotional issue. However, regardless of the ultimate findings, the inquiry provides an important opportunity to have a more nuanced conversation about what equity means in Buffalo.

In the interest of honest and productive dialogue, two central arguments made by some of those who are opposed to the investigation deserve a closer look.

The first is that City Honors should only accept students who demonstrate the intellectual ability to keep up academically, which the current admissions criteria accomplish. The second, primarily voiced by some alumni, is that admission comes from hard work, and so changing the admissions requirements reflects a wish to reduce the effort required to succeed.

Both arguments – one focused on intellect, the other on work ethic – lean on assumptions that need to be broken down.

In relation to intellectual ability, we must clearly define terms. The current admissions process heavily weighs standardized tests of academic accomplishment. However, in a widely impoverished and segregated city that does not guarantee preschool or high-quality elementary programming, to what extent do we believe that elementary test scores reflect capacity, as opposed to access? Are we saying that by fifth grade, it’s too late for students to thrive academically in a challenging and supportive environment if they were enrolled in a poorly rated elementary school and haven’t made expected skill gains?

In posing these questions, I do not mean to say that all students are suited for or inclined toward an exceptionally rigorous program. Rather, if we defend the existing admissions process based on the premise of ability required to succeed, as this conversation unfolds we need to be honest about what our measures do and don’t reflect, and why.

This question of ability versus access relates closely to the issue of work ethic. There is an important distinction between earned accomplishment and unearned privilege that needs to be made. Privilege – which could include a parent who emphasizes education or the use of standard English at home – is descriptive, not accusatory. It need not detract from the significance of what “successful” people have worked to earn or overcome; rather, it acknowledges that children’s access to resources is unequal. If we maintain that hard work is enough, we rationalize and enable cycles of inequity.

In a city such as Buffalo, issues of equity and urban revitalization are fundamentally intertwined. The city’s future is dependent on being able to find and cultivate strength of students across the city – strength that is latent, not absent.

Becca Bass graduated from City Honors in 2008.