Keep The Colorblind High School Admissions Process Alive
Stuyvesant represents an equalizer of opportunity, but to take proactive steps that will reduce the number of seats that go to many Asian American (and Caucasian) students, especially under the guise that these students represent a privileged population among their peers, is misguided and ultimately punishes an entire demographic for their recent academic, if not socioeconomic, success.
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Over these past few years, the term “Specialized High School Admissions Test” has appeared in just about every possible media and news outlet. On a smaller scale, it has sparked immeasurable tension among students, parents, and administration. On a larger scale, it has pitted minority groups against each other in a hysterical cry over institutional disparities and racism.
As current Stuyvesant students, we’ve continued to follow this debate closely and have come to realize that much of the discussion surrounding the “unfairness” of a test-based admissions system revolves around the idea that the students who are ultimately offered admission into specialized high schools are privileged and boast socio-economic advantages that propel them into the best schools. This is a misconception.
Though the average Asian family is traditionally seen by other ethnic groups as quite privileged, it is actually economically disadvantaged. When referencing all demographic populations here at Stuyvesant, over 50 percent of students qualify for free lunch, with Asians making up much of this percentage. In fact, until 2015, there were more Asian Americans living in poverty in New York City than any other ethnic group.
Even so, parents seek out test preparation programs for their children, many of which cost hundreds and thousands of dollars, in order to give them the best possible chance of attending one of the specialized high schools. None of these students is able to take the test as a comfortable backup plan—the stakes are high, and admission is not guaranteed for any of them.
Stuyvesant represents an equalizer of opportunity, but to take proactive steps that will reduce the number of seats that go to many Asian American (and Caucasian) students, especially under the guise that these students represent a privileged population among their peers, is misguided and ultimately punishes an entire demographic for their recent academic, if not socio-economic, success.
This is not to say that the current admissions system is not without flaws. By using the experiences of accepted Stuyvesant students as a model, it is clear that one of the most important steps that Mayor de Blasio can take is to foster stronger work ethic, drive, and parental awareness of the test much earlier through structured and vetted test preparation programs that are free of charge.
We both have experience with preparing ourselves and others for the SHSAT. One of us (Brian) was a tutor for two students at the 53rd Street Branch Library over the summer; one was male and the other was female. The male student was constantly fidgeting and answering text messages on his phone. The female student came in with her mother and actually asked her mother to stay as they both asked questions about specialized high schools. Needless to say, her performance on practice tests far surpassed her male peer’s.
Another one of us (Rachel) participated in the DREAM program, a free after-school program run by the Department of Education (DOE) that prepares seventh graders to take the SHSAT. While there was a population of motivated students who went home and received additional support from the parents to complete the assigned homework and take practice tests, after a few months, attendance of the program as a whole began dropping significantly.
Ultimately, the debate over the SHSAT does partly come down to the fact that some students are not academically prepared by their middle schools to earn admission to specialized high schools. But to then simply dismiss the issue as a whole, telling the DOE to just “reform the public education system from the ground up,” is dismissive and lazy.
There is something that parents of middle school students can do, even if they can’t afford to send their kids to private prep schools or the best middle schools: offer support at home. The difference between the students in the DREAM program who stayed and those who dropped out was the fact that they had parents at home checking in on their progress, printing out free practice tests available online, and enforcing the discipline that is necessary for young students to prepare for such a big test. It’s important to remember that this discipline and motivation does not come naturally to most students who are preparing for the SHSAT—these students are only 13 or 14 years old.
Ultimately, we need to stop making assumptions that any one particular demographic has technical advantages that ensure admission to one of the eight specialized high schools. The majority of Stuyvesant’s current population is made up of immigrants and children of immigrants. There are more students whose parents can’t speak English than students who can pay their way into private schools if they chose to do so. Stuyvesant as a whole doesn’t represent privilege; it represents sacrifice and dedication.