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Why I Support Reforming New York City’s Elite High School Admissions

This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action

Written by Serena Deng

“Hard work pays off” is something I grew up hearing over and over from my parents. These are the words that I repeated back to myself as I stayed up late to prepare for tests and scrambled to finish my homework on early morning train rides. But now, as a senior at an elite high school in New York City, I have come to recognize the flaws with this mindset.

The fairness of the admissions system to specialized and other elite high schools in the city has long been in question due to the decline in the enrollment of Black, Hispanic, and low-income students at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and similar top-ranked public schools. Today, Black and Hispanic students represent nearly 70 percent of NYC’s high school system, but make up just over 10 percent of students enrolled in the nine specialized high schools. With the exception of LaGuardia (which requires the submission of an audition or arts portfolio instead), admission to these nine schools is based on a student’s score on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), an exam taken in the fall of eighth grade. Other selective high schools, such as Hunter College High School, administer similar entrance tests.

A photo of the entrance to Stuyvesant High School in New York City.

Stuyvesant High School (Source: NY Post)

In 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed intentions to eliminate the SHSAT as the determining factor of admission in order to increase diversity in specialized high schools. These plans sparked dissent within the Asian American community: a number of Asian families and lawmakers argued that scrapping the test would be discriminatory to Asian students, who make up a large portion of the student body. Though de Blasio’s proposals never went through, the pandemic has reignited the debate over admission to selective high schools as officials grappled with how to administer testing, if at all.

Pictured is an image of a pencil as it lies across a multiple-choice answer sheet used in standardized testing.

(Source: Inside Higher Ed)

When I first heard about the turmoil around admissions reform, I also felt targeted. For one, I was hurt by the way that lawmakers seemingly refused to consult the AAPI community in making plans for change. In addition, as I read article after article describing the way that these plans would cut the Asian population at specialized schools, I feared that getting rid of the admissions test would depreciate the hard work that countless Asian students put in to succeed academically.

Growing up in a low-income family that has since “made it,” I thought of the way we’d had to pass up scallion and ginger to pay our rent or the way I used to shrug and crack a smile when my friends made jokes about those who were on our school’s fee waiver. Now, my parents work white-collar jobs, and my brother and I have both gained admission to prestigious colleges. Didn’t we work hard? Didn’t we deserve to be where we were? I’d always found comfort in high test scores, in the glorious “99th percentile” plastered on paper, in the fact that when we entered the testing room, all the disparities between me and the kids seated around me seemed to fall away. We were equipped with the same number two pencil and rubber eraser. Success was determined solely on whether we bubbled an A or a B or a C. Nothing seemed fairer. Standardized testing felt like one of the few places where I could be on equal footing with my peers, and the prospect that it could no longer exist for kids like me was difficult to swallow.

I still believe that not initially including Asian American voices in the conversation was an unacceptable oversight, and I still believe that my family worked extremely hard to get to where we are today. However, I have to recognize the truth that I, and many of my peers, have been afforded many privileges that not all minority families have. Most of my friends come from wealthier families and have been able to spend hours a week at expensive test preps and summer programs, luxuries that many cannot afford. Even being able to devote so much time to studying is a huge privilege.

Because there exist challenges specific to Black and brown families, especially low-income ones, “study harder” and “work harder” aren’t the simple paths to success that Chinese Americans believe them to be. Systemic racism, the amalgamation of forces built into our society that put people of color at a disadvantage, affects different groups in different ways: for example, research done by the American Psychological Association reported that, as early as the age of ten, Black students are perceived to be older and less innocent than their peers and are therefore more likely to face disciplinary action for issues for which other children tend to be forgiven; a 2004 study found that schools actively discourage Black students from enrolling in advanced classes or participating in extracurricular activities, college-preparatory challenges their white peers are encouraged to take on. Outside the classroom, a host of other issues disadvantage these students in ways most Asian American students never experience, from redlining to generational poverty caused by decades of discriminatory hiring practices and under- and low employment.

As much as we might want to believe it, our current educational system isn’t helping the AAPI community, either. We need to stop believing that the SHSAT is the way for smart, hard-working Asian kids to test into a successful future. For one, even though the number of Asian students at these schools is large, they still fail to represent NYC’s Asian American population as a whole. There are significantly fewer low-income families at elite high schools—according to the 2017–2018 report on demographic data in NYC public schools, 76.5 percent of Asian students grades 9 through 12 in NYC are eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared with 53.4 percent at Stuyvesant High School and 56.1 percent at the Bronx High School of Science, two of NYC’s nine specialized high schools. At Hunter, only 105 of 1200 total students are eligible. And the 2019 NYC Government Poverty Measure reveals that 23.8 percent of Asians in NYC live in poverty, the highest rate out of all racial groups. At first glance, the high numbers of Asian students at elite schools might seem like an encouraging statistic. While low-income Asian American students do manage to test into elite high schools, these disparities suggest that they, alongside a large population of Black and brown students, continue to be edged out by peers with access to more resources because of the emphasis on a single admissions exam.

Image of a woman holding a protest sign, on which "How is our school 2.4% Black, 6.4% Latinx, [and] 9% low-income with a city student population that is 25.5% [Black], 40.6% [Latinx], and 72,8% [low-income]?" is written on it.

Pictured is a protest outside Hunter College High School, photo courtesy of the author

Just as our current system isn’t helping us, reforming it won’t necessarily hurt us. Though there have not yet been wholesale changes made to the high school admissions process, a number of smaller initiatives have been working to aid underserved student groups. One such initiative is the NYC Department of Education Discovery Program, which provides summer enrichment to high-performing, disadvantaged students to help them gain admission to specialized high schools, with the ultimate goal of phasing out the SHSAT by integrating admissions based on middle school ranking. In 2020, 49.7 percent of offers went to low-income Asian American students in 2020, the most out of any other racial demographic, as well as an increase from last year, indicating that Asian Americans will continue to benefit from equal access reform. This continuation of this program could also lead to a more accurate representation of the diversity within New York’s Asian community: for example, the DOE predicts that the program will lead to increased representation of students whose home language is Urdu or Tagalog. The AAPI community is incredibly diverse, and advocating for an inclusive education system will aid it.

Image depicts a group of protestors carrying various signs that urge specialized schools in NYC to better reflect the diversity of NYC's student population.

Pictured is a protest outside Hunter College High School, photo courtesy of the author

Ultimately, my experience at an elite high school has taught me two important lessons. First, an admissions test is not a level playing field for disadvantaged students to obtain better futures. And second, even for students from minority groups who do manage to gain admission to selective schools, these schools are not designed to support them. These disparities became especially apparent to me as I began applying to colleges: though my grade had a great deal of aid from our counselors, from frequent workshops to walk-in hours for students to chat one-on-one, there seemed to be some unspoken assumption that we were already familiar with the basics of the college process. Many of my friends’ parents had a hand in helping them create a college list, edit essays, or apply for financial aid; a good number had legacy connections to prestigious schools as well. In an environment where having these sources of outside help was an expectation, tackling the process entirely on my own was both daunting and alienating. It was this experience that caused me to fully realize that no amount of hard work could put me on equal footing with the students who were born into access to more resources.

There is a real sense of isolation in growing up as a first-generation, low-income person of color. As an East Asian American, I know that I am extremely lucky to be able to attend a school where the majority of students look like me and share a similar background to mine, but because the status quo is one of relative wealth and relative whiteness, it still feels like we don’t quite belong. And, coming from a background of relative privilege, I understand that the disparity between many other underrepresented students and this “status quo” is even greater. Bringing in more diversity to these elite high schools is a necessary step in making room for kids from all different backgrounds, and it’s just one in a series of steps towards making our education system more equitable.

The usage of examples of Asian success to justify our current high school system harms all communities of color. This rhetoric reduces the Asian American community to a monolith by focusing on a subset of its population. Educational inequity affects all minority groups, and we need to recognize the ways in which it comes into play among Asian Americans. Our current high school admissions model might appear to favor Asian students—and sure, there are definitely students that benefit from it—but the pushback against reform, couched in praise for industrious minority families, is hurting and dividing the Asian American community as well as minorities as a whole. The way that this issue has deepened rifts between Asian and Black/Hispanic communities is counterproductive and will only hurt us all.

Image depicts a sign that says "Diversity is Excellence."

Pictured is a protest outside Hunter College High School, photo courtesy of the author

I used to be scared of the prospect of losing our current admissions system because I didn’t know what it would mean for kids like me. I still can’t be certain of the specific impact of these types of decisions on our school communities, nor which decision is the right one to make. But when I reflect back on my own high school career, I can confidently say that holding onto the current system is not the solution. I refuse to let myself, and my Asian American peers, be used to downplay the systemic issues that prevent kids from minority groups from getting the same education as other students, or become an easy example for those in positions in power to point a finger at and say, “How bad can it be? Look at them.”


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