The fraught racial politics of entrance exams for elite high schools

Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a drastic change in the way students are admitted to the city’s elite high schools.

Students gain entry to one of these eight “specialized” schools by scoring high enough on a single exam called the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). De Blasio has called for phasing out the exam and instead admitting the top students from each middle school.

This has prompted protests from Asian Americans who feel this policy disproportionately hurts them, as well as hand-wringing from graduates of these schools, who believe the move will lower the quality of the education at these institutions.

For decades, these elite schools have been a prime example of what a great secondary education could offer — but also a symbol of how rigged the system is. Since the 1970s, students, school officials, and even the US Office of Civil Rights have said that the admissions process hurts students of color.

Today, about 70 percent of New York high schools are black and Hispanic — but they account for just 10 percent of students in New York’s specialized high schools.

By phasing out the test, de Blasio’s plan starts a process that would eventually make these schools about 45 percent black and Hispanic — much closer to citywide demographics.

And the city predicts it will offer fewer seats to white students — but also significantly fewer seats to Asian students.

For many Asian Americans, the entrance exam represents their best bet to get a fair shot. You don’t need connections, you don’t need to be socially adept, and you aren’t judged by vague and subjective standards. Ace this test and you’re in.

But it’s tough to argue the current admissions process is fair — and not only because of the disproportionate demographics. Testing may seem like an objective process, but it often replicates the inequalities that public education is supposed to remedy. Indeed, the current system was put into law in the 1970s when white parents urged the state to institute a test-only system — a campaign that itself was pushing back against proposed changes to the process that would have admitted more black and Puerto Rican students to the schools.

This tension often hides in the subtext of political debates. Now it’s being spoken out loud.

”[De Blasio] never had this problem when Stuyvesant [High School] was all white. He never had this problem when Stuyvesant was all Jewish,” Kenneth Chiu, the chair of the New York City Asian-American Democratic Club, told NY1. Stuyvesant is one of New York’s eight specialized schools.

”All of a sudden, they see one too many Chinese and they say, ‘Hey, it isn’t right.’”

The implications of the “Asians work harder” argument

Until now, the affirmative action debate has been squarely focused on elite college admissions.

For decades, Asian Americans have been accusing top colleges of imposing illegal quotas on Asian students, limiting the number of spots for them even as those institutions sought to bring in more black and Hispanic students. Opponents of affirmative action have used these grievances to challenge the law. There is currently a lawsuit against Harvard University, as well as a Justice Department investigation into this matter.

The accusations that colleges have quotas often come with the complaint that it means Asian Americans have to compete for a set number of seats among themselves. But applicants don’t know everyone else who is applying to Harvard or Yale, and it’s hard to pin down where you are on that totem pole.

With de Blasio’s plan, however, students will know exactly whom they’re competing against, and exactly how the ranking system works.

First, de Blasio wants to reserve 20 percent of seats in specialized schools for students from high-poverty schools who didn’t meet the exam cutoff. In the next three years, he wants to phase out the entrance exam entirely and grant admission to students who are in the top 7 percent of each middle school’s graduating class, as determined by a combination of grades and state standardized tests.

The plan integrates schools by taking advantage of New York’s highly segregated geography.

Students in poor, segregated neighborhoods wouldn’t compete against students in rich neighborhoods; instead, they’d compete against their neighbors, which guarantees a certain number of seats for each middle school. This is similar to the way the University of Texas has achieved diversity goals, which survived Supreme Court scrutiny in 2016. The change would also end up capping the number of students from any given school.

All of this is by design — and, in fact, it’s the narrow way in which the Supreme Court said districts could pursue diversity.

In recent years, the number of Asian-Americans students has grown sharply at specialized schools, and it’s left fewer seats for black and Hispanic students. This plan would push back against that trend.

When New York City’s new chancellor, Richard Carranza, was asked whether this plan pits minority groups against each other, he said, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.”

But Asian-American leaders who oppose de Blasio’s plan insist their presence in specialized schools isn’t a sign of privilege.

Soo Kim, president of the Stuyvesant Alumni Association, told the New York Times, “Stuyvesant is an option for those who have no option. They don’t know how to interview or influence their way into the right public schools or the right private schools.”

One specialized high school student told the New York Times in 2012, “Most of our parents don’t believe in ‘gifted.’ It’s all about hard work.”

This narrative is one that so many immigrants children have heard. It’s about being told to work harder than everyone else, because we are perpetual foreigners who will never be gifted anything. It’s why an exam-only process is so appealing; there are no subjective judgments of character or culture — just right or wrong answers no one can dispute. It’s the context behind the growth of test prep services.

As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen puts it, “They study. They study hard.”

This way of thinking, of course, implies everyone else isn’t working hard enough — and that’s why everyone else isn’t getting ahead. And this test affirms that belief.

What does this test measure?

It’s worth taking a step back and remembering that there really is something awry with the admissions process at specialized schools.

Not only does the data clearly show that the test-only system created a subset of highly segregated, elite schools, but this system was put into law by white leaders who specifically wanted to limit the number of black and Puerto Rican students.

So, as Nikole Hannah-Jones argues, if we believe that black and Hispanic children are just as intelligent as white and Asian children, what exactly does this test measure?

One answer is that it measures who has the resources to prep for this test. Schoolwork isn’t enough to prepare you. A large portion of Asian-American students take courses to optimize their scores on the SHSAT, and later they will likely take prep courses for the SAT. This, of course, takes money, time, and access. (These critiques almost invariably lead to other microaggressions against Asians — that we are too focused on tests and academics, and it doesn’t make us well-rounded. Of course, that’s exactly what the system incentivized.)

The broader answer is that the test measures how American policies have engineered these racial dynamics.

American policies segregated black and brown families into poor neighborhoods and inadequate schools — and they continue to do so today. These policies have also fueled a massive racial wealth gap that continues to widen.

American policies also created a relatively new Asian-American population. Before the 1960s, US immigration policy was largely anti-Asian. But as the US became more receptive to Asian migration, it favored certain people: relatives of US residents, those with specialized skills, and refugees.

Most of these immigrants couldn’t be considered wealthy by any means — especially in New York, where Asians have the highest poverty rate of any racial group.

But most of our families weren’t subjected to the same discriminatory policies that have kept black and Hispanic families in intergenerational poverty.

This test, like so many others, appears to disproportionately measure these engineered gaps.

There are other good schools. Why is this fight so charged?

There are eight specialized schools in New York City that base admission solely on the SHSAT score, the most well-known of which are the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School.

Together, these eight schools educate just 5 percent of New York City’s 310,000 high school students. There are plenty of other great high schools.

But the fight about affirmative action, especially around elite schools, gets so charged because it’s not just about education. As Harvard education professor Natasha Warikoo wrote in her recent book The Diversity Bargain, “[These schools] are especially important for our understanding of meritocracy, because many see admissions to those universities as the ultimate demonstration of merit.”

Of course, merit is a completely made-up standard. It’s not an objective metric; rather, it reflects our ideals.

After all, in the 1970s, white leaders defined merit to limit the number of nonwhite students at the specialized schools. They believed not abiding by these definitions of merit would “destroy the quality and special character of the institutions,” according to a 1971 New York Times story.

And this same rhetoric is being used today.

But as Politico’s Eliza Shapiro reports, the city’s analysis shows that this new system wouldn’t dramatically change the average test scores or GPAs for specialized school students. In other words, it won’t lower the quality of the student body.

Removing the test, however, will change the definition of merit to reflect more equitable ideals.

For decades, New York’s elite schools used an exclusionary system to define merit — and Asian Americans have been wildly successful within this system.

Now, for the better — but without their consultation — the definition of merit is changing.

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