Activists hold signs during a protest last week against New York City’s plan to revamp admissions to specialized high schools. Asian students are now overrepresented at the schools, but a plan offered by Mayor Bill de Blasio would give more spots to black and Hispanic students. 
Photo: KEVIN HAGEN/The New York Times
Photo: KEVIN HAGEN/The New York Times

Do Asian-American students pay price for academic excellence? 

Exemplary scores on high school admissions tests tell you something about students, including which had a strong K-8 foundation and which had access to test prep. 

But the scores don’t tell you everything. 

That’s why New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to change how students are admitted to nine “specialized high schools” long considered gateways to the Ivies and other elite colleges. 

Among those schools: the Bronx High School of Science, the Brooklyn Latin School and Stuyvesant High School. Now, students gain entry to those hallowed halls based on their performance on New York’s Specialized High School Admissions Test or SHSAT. 

Here is what de Blasio said about relying on a single high-stakes test in a guest column for Chalkbeat: 

The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence. If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over. Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards. 

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black. 

Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off. 

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. 

As you might imagine, the prospect of their kids losing a seat at one of these premium high schools has upset many parents, especially Asian-Americans. Asian students dominate these elite New York schools, and their parents spend thousands on test prep to improve their chances of admission. 

(Here is a link to test prep for the NYC admissions exam starting at $999 and to tutoring starting at $2599.)

According to New York City school data: Black and Hispanic students represent about 70 percent of public school students, but only 10 percent of students at these academic powerhouses. Asians constitute 16 percent of public school students but are 62 percent of students at the specialized schools. Yes, white kids are also disproportionately represented in these schools, but not to the same degree, making up 15 percent of total NYC students, and 24 percent of those in these schools. 

Protests have erupted, including one Sunday attended by an estimated 1,000 New Yorkers, who contend reducing seats available to top-scoring students is racist and discriminates against Asian-Americans. Yes, Asian parents acknowledge they pay for test prep but cite that as evidence of their dedication to academic excellence. 

As Chalkbeat reported about parents at a recent protest: 

Several mothers spoke of foregoing simple pleasures — getting manicures or their hair done — so they could afford after-school programs and test preparation for the Specialized High School Admissions Test. The parents talked about their children studying for years in elementary and middle school, including preparation to ace the exam and earn a coveted spot at an elite school. 

Now, the parents feel like those sacrifices are being overlooked by those who now say the test is unfair. Violet Ding, who has a son at Brooklyn Technical High School and is a first-generation Chinese immigrant, got emotional talking about how she packed sandwiches to take to work every day in part so she had money to help prepare her child. 

“I came here with nothing and was willing to work hard,” Ding said. “There’s nothing wrong with increasing equity, but we don’t count just because my kid is Asian?” 

The Asian community was incensed last week after New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a TV interview, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools. Either we believe the kids — black kids and brown kids — can’t compete, or there’s something wrong with the system that’s not casting a wide enough net.” 

Asian-American leaders condemned Carranza’s use of the word “owned,” countering students in their communities earned their entry to the schools. 

Bob Schaeffer leads FairTest, a national organization devoted to diminishing the influence of standardized testing in college admissions. I asked him what he thought of the New York battle. 

“Relying on a single exam privileges children from families who 1) best understand the admissions procedure and 2) ‘game’ the process by investing substantial time and money in preparing for the exam,” he said. “Moreover, the narrow selection rule ends up diverting resources to test-prep companies and away from more potentially more meaningful educational experiences.” 

Schaeffer points to more inclusive admission models, including the percentage plan used at Texas public universities, which provides seats for top-performing students from every school. Another option is a lottery open to anyone who achieves a specified GPA level in core courses. “As we have seen in undergraduate admissions, the pool of applicants selected by these rules is substantially more diverse than the one that relies on test scores with no diminution in academic quality,” said Schaeffer.

Comment sections in New York newspapers are full of the opposite viewpoint, including these recent comments in The New York Times: 

--Some may not like the outcome of the test, but it is fair, and it is objective. Other selection measures bring in subjectivity and personal bias to muddy the waters. The fact that there are some black and Latinos who score high and attend those schools shows that it can be done. By the way, once admitted, students find a competitive atmosphere that will not suit every student. Getting in is just the beginning. 

--I'm a white female who attended one of the NYC specialized high schools back in the 90s. Even then, the majority of the student body was Asian. And guess what? They deserved to be there. Some kids -- Asian, white, Latino --  were able to ace the test thanks to their natural academic prowess and IQ. Some others worked their behinds off to get in. Now we are going to punish these hardworking kids, many of whom came from poor families? So many of my Asian friends' parents worked 24/7 so their kids could have these educational opportunities. They were not rich families who had every advantage handed to them. 

--Why is it a crime to take a prep course? How about making test prep free to poor students citywide? How about working on equalizing the quality of elementary and middle schools across New York City, so students there can receive a high-quality education and develop the skills they will need to succeed in a pressure cooker like Stuy or Bronx Science? Standardized tests have their issues, but they offer everyone an opportunity. You don't need a fancy pedigree or rich parents to do well. You need some natural intelligence and a good work/study ethic. 

I suspect a lot of the people defending the use of a single test for admission wouldn’t be as supportive if their own workplace performance hinged on one test score. And for good reason. 

An HR executive told me her company used to reward and deploy customer service reps based on scores on a detailed test on policies and procedures. Then, they discovered knowing policies and procedures didn’t mean the workers used them well or at the appropriate moments or in a way that built good will among customers. When they compared customer feedback with employee test scores, there was little correlation.

What do you think?

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for...