1In 2004, 7-year-old Ting Shi arrived in New York from China, speaking almost
no English. For two years, he shared a bedroom in a Chinatown apartment
with his grandparents — a cook and a factory worker — and a young cousin,
while his parents put in 12-hour days at a small laundromat they had
purchased on the Upper East Side.
Ting mastered English and eventually set his sights on getting into
Stuyvesant High School, the crown jewel of New York City’s eight “
specialized high schools.”
When he was in sixth grade, he took the subway downtown from his parents’
small apartment to the bustling high school to pick up prep books for its
eighth-grade entrance exam. He prepared for the test over the next two years
, working through the prep books and taking classes at one of the city’s
free tutoring programs. His acceptance into Stuyvesant prompted a day of
celebration at the laundromat — an immigrant family’s dream beginning to
Ting, now a 17-year-old senior starting at NYU in the fall, says of his
parents, who never went to college: “They came here for the next generation
New York’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant and the equally
storied Bronx High School of Science, along with Brooklyn Technical High
School and five smaller schools, have produced 14 Nobel laureates — more
than most countries.
For more than 70 years, admission to these schools has been based upon a
competitive examination of math, verbal and logical reasoning skills. In
1971, the state legislature, heading off city efforts to scrap the merit
selection test as culturally biased against minorities, reaffirmed that
admission to the schools be based on the competitive exam.
But now, troubled by declining black and Hispanic enrollment at the schools,
opponents of the exam have resurfaced. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has
filed a civil-rights complaint challenging the admissions process. A bill in
Albany to eliminate the test requirement has garnered the support of
Sheldon Silver, the powerful Assembly speaker.
And new mayor Bill de Blasio, whose son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Tech, has
called for changing the admissions criteria. The mayor argues that relying
solely on the test creates a “rich-get-richer” dynamic that benefits the
wealthy, who can afford expensive test preparation.
As Ting’s story illustrates, however, the reality is just the opposite. It
’s not affluent whites, but rather the city’s burgeoning population of
Asian-American immigrants — a group that, despite its successes, remains
disproportionately poor and working-class — whose children have aced the
exam in overwhelming numbers.
And, ironically, the more “holistic” and subjective admissions criteria
that de Blasio and the NAACP favor would be much more likely to benefit
children of the city’s professional elite than African-American and Latino
applicants — while penalizing lower-middle-class Asian-American kids like
Ting. The result would not be a specialized high school student body that “
looks like New York,” but rather one that looks more like Bill de Blasio’s
upscale Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn.
There is no dispute that black and Latino enrollment at the specialized
schools, while always low, has steadily declined since the 1970s.
Blacks constituted 13% of the student body at Stuyvesant in 1979, 5% in 1994
and just 1% the last few years, while Hispanics dropped from a high of 4%
to 2% today.
Similarly, at Bronx Science, black enrollment has fallen from 12% in 1994 to
3% currently and Hispanic enrollment has leveled off, from about 10% to 6%.
The figures are even more striking at the less selective Brooklyn Tech,
where blacks made up 37% of the student body in 1994 but only 8% today,
while Hispanic numbers plunged from about 15% to 8%.
These declining minority numbers have not been matched by a corresponding
increase in whites, however. In fact, white enrollment at Stuyvesant, Bronx
Science and Brooklyn Tech has plummeted as well, dropping from 79%, 81% and
77%, respectively, in 1971 to just 22%, 23% and 20% today.
Rather, it is New York City’s fastest-growing racial minority group, Asian-
Americans, who have come to dominate these schools. Asians, while always a
presence in New York, didn’t begin arriving in the city in large numbers
until immigration restrictions were lifted with passage of the Immigration
and Nationality Act of 1965, championed by Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Since then, their proportion of the city’s population has increased from
less than 1% to about 13%, and their share of the specialized school
population has skyrocketed. Asian students constituted 6% of the enrollment
at Stuyvesant in 1970 and 50% in 1994; they make up an incredible 73% of the
student body this year.
The story is similar at Bronx Science, where the Asian population has
exploded from 5% in 1970 to 41% in 1994 to 62% today, and at Brooklyn Tech,
where their presence increased from 6% to 33% to 61%.
Asians in New York are overwhelmingly first- and second-generation; some
three-quarters of the students at Stuyvesant are immigrants or the children
They’re hardly affluent, notwithstanding de Blasio’s implication that
families who get their kids into the specialized schools are “rich.”
True, Asians nationally have the highest median income of any racial group,
including whites — and in New York City, their median household income
ranks second to that of whites and well ahead of blacks and Hispanics.
But Asians also have the highest poverty rate of any racial group in New
York, with 29% living below the poverty level, compared with 26% of
Hispanics, 23% of blacks and 14% of whites. Poor Asians lag far behind
whites and are barely ahead of blacks and Latinos. Thus, the income spectrum
among Asians in New York ranges from a surprisingly large number in poverty
, through a hardworking lower middle class, and on to a more affluent upper
It might seem reasonable to assume — as de Blasio and others apparently do
— that the Asian kids at the specialized schools come largely from families
at the top of this pyramid. But this isn’t the case.
Half the students at the specialized high schools qualify for free or
subsidized school lunches, including 47% at Stuyvesant and 48% at Bronx
Science — figures that have increased correspondingly with Asians’ rising
numbers at these schools. Based upon these figures, Stuyvesant and Bronx
Science (as well as four of the other six specialized schools) are eligible
for federal Title I funding, given to schools with large numbers of low-
Think about that: two public high schools that, along with half their
students, are officially classified as poor by the federal government rival
the most exclusive prep schools in the world.
The poor students get into such schools through hard work and sacrifice —
both their own and that of their parents. The students typically attend
local tutoring programs, which proliferate in Asian neighborhoods, starting
the summer after sixth grade and for several days a week, including weekends
, during the school year prior to the test. The costs are burdensome for
poor and working families, but it’s a matter of priorities.
All this once would have been the stuff of liberal dreams: a racial minority
group historically victimized by discrimination begins coming to America in
greater numbers because of an immigration reform sponsored by Ted Kennedy.
Though many in the group remain in poverty, they take advantage of free
public schools established by progressive New York City governments. By dint
of their own hard work, they earn admission in increasing numbers to merit-
based schools that offer smart working-class kids the kind of education once
available only at Andover or Choate.
To modern “progressive” elites, though, the story is intolerable, starting
with the hard work. These liberal elites seem particularly troubled by the
Asian-American work ethic and the difficult questions that it raises about
the role of culture in group success.
While the advancement of Asian students has come overwhelmingly at the
expense of more affluent whites, it has also had an undeniable impact on
black and Latino students, whose foothold at these schools, small to begin
with, has all but vanished.
Alarm at this development has triggered a new wave of assaults upon the
entrance exam — now known as the Specialized High School Admissions Test (
“SHSAT”). — and the law that mandates its use.
In September 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint with the
US Department of Education, which dispenses federal educational funding to
the city, charging that use of the SHSAT as the sole basis for admission
violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial
discrimination by federal aid recipients.
The complaint does not allege that the exam intentionally discriminates
against black and Hispanic students. Instead, citing statistics regarding
declining black and Latino enrollment and SHSAT pass rates, the LDF bases
its argument entirely on the theory of “disparate impact” — that is, that
discrimination should be inferred merely from racial differences in test
In the complaint and in a subsequent report released last fall to coincide
with Mayor de Blasio’s election, the LDF argues for replacement of the
SHSAT with a “holistic” admissions process — one that would consider “
multiple measures” of academic potential, “both quantitative and
qualitative,” including not only grades but also such subjective indicators
as interviews, recommendations, “portfolio assessments,” “proven
leadership skills,” and “commitment to community service.”
Other factors could include applicants’ “backgrounds and experiences” and
the “demographic profile” of their schools and neighborhoods. To the
extent that a test would be allowed at all, it would merely “supplement”
these other criteria. The LDF also called for guaranteed admission for
valedictorians and salutatorians, and perhaps other top students, at each
public middle school program — a proposal that sounds modest but would
actually require a set-aside of at least 1,000 of the 3,800 seats in each
Such subjective admissions criteria would be likelier to favor the kids of
New York’s professional class than children from less affluent backgrounds.
De Blasio suggested, for example, that a student’s extracurricular
activities should be one of the selection factors. But as a past president
of the Stuyvesant Parents Association noted, “the kids that have the best r
ésumés in seventh and eighth grades have money.”
A Chinese student like Ting Shi who has to help out in his parents’
Laundromat is not going on “service” trips to Nicaragua with the children
in de Blasio’s affluent Park Slope neighborhood. The LDF’s suggested
admissions criteria — student portfolios, leadership skills, and community
service — are all subject to privileged parents’ ability to buy their
children the indicia of impressiveness.
Ironically, eliminating the SHSAT would magnify the role of what
progressives call “unconscious bias” — the idea that we have a preference
for those who look like us and share our backgrounds. Subjective evaluation
measures like interviews and portfolio reviews are much more susceptible to
such bias than is an objective examination.
Sure, the decision makers will do their best to admit a few more black and
Latino kids (especially those from the same upper-middle-class backgrounds),
but the primary beneficiaries will be affluent white students who didn’t
study hard enough to perform really well on the test but seem more “well-
rounded” than those who did.
As always, the losers in this top-bottom squeeze will be the lower middle
and working classes. Among the applicant pool for the specialized high
schools, that means Asians.
Comparing the specialized schools with other selective city high schools
that don’t use the SHSAT bears this out. These “screened” high schools
are, to varying degrees, more selective than regular neighborhood high
schools; they choose students using the multiple criteria supported by SHSAT
A comparison of the eight most selective screened schools with the eight
specialized schools shows that the screened schools, while more heavily
black and Latino, are also considerably whiter and more affluent — and
considerably less Asian.
Remember that the specialized schools are 13% black and Hispanic, 24% white
and 60% Asian. The top screened schools are 27% black and Hispanic, 46%
white and only 26% Asian. And while 50% of the students at the specialized
schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, only 37% of the students
at the top screened schools do.
Subjective selection criteria also inevitably favor the affluent and
connected — as a comptroller’s audit of the screened-school admissions
process revealed. The study found that most of the schools examined did not
follow their stated selection criteria and could not explain the criteria
that they actually did use.
There is also a big difference between evaluating 17-year-old college
applicants and 13-year-old high-school applicants. The younger candidates
have had far less opportunity to distinguish themselves on such vague
qualities as “character” and “leadership.” A selection process based on
these intangibles can easily fall prey to arbitrariness, prejudice and
Critics of the SHSAT will reply that something must be done about declining
black and Hispanic enrollment at the specialized high schools. The answer,
however, can never be to lower objective standards.
Adopting this cynical approach would do no favors for black and Latino
children, while opening the door to discrimination against Asian kids like
Ting. It is not the specialized schools’ emphasis on merit, but rather the
advocates’ defeatist worldview that is truly — and tragically —