Asian-Americans assail schools plan


Opponents of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to overhaul admissions to specialized high schools held a rally at City Hall June 10. Photo: State Senator Marty Golden, via Facebook

Mayor has proposed elimination of test criteria for admission to specialized high schools

BY MICHAEL GAROFALO

Asian-Americans have voiced robust objections to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to increase diversity in New York City’s specialized high schools, claiming the proposal to overhaul admissions at the elite institutions would unfairly and inordinately impact Asian-Americans.

The mayor’s plan, unveiled last week, would modify admissions standards at eight of the city’s nine specialized high schools (including Stuyvesant High School and the High School for Math, Science and Engineering in Manhattan), where offers are currently determined solely by applicants’ scores on a three-hour exam. The mayor’s proposal calls for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, to be eliminated, a step that would require state authorization.

Under de Blasio’s plan, which has won the support of a number of elected officials and education groups, the test would be replaced with a new composite admission score based on students’ classroom grades and performance on state standardized exams. The top 7 percent of students at each middle school in the city would receive offers from specialized high schools.

The plan is aimed at remedying persistent racial segregation in the specialized high schools, which are among the most selective and prestigious public schools in the nation. Black and Latino students make up just 10 percent of the student body at specialized high schools despite comprising 70 percent of the population in the public school system as a whole. White and Asian students, by contrast, are overrepresented.

The administration projects that the plan would drastically increase the number of black and Latino students admitted to specialized high schools — raising the proportion of admission offers to those groups from 9 percent to 45 percent. But any substantial change in student demographics at the specialized high schools would disproportionately impact Asian-Americans, who currently receive more than half of all offers.

Hundreds of specialized high school students, parents, and alumni, many of them Asian-American, rallied at City Hall June 10 to protest the mayor’s plan. “Keep the test,” chanted protesters, some carrying signs stating their intention to vote out elected officials who support the proposal.

“These schools have so many low-income students and immigrants, and they’re the ones who are going to be the biggest losers,” said David Lee, the vice president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, one of the groups that participated in the rally.

Lee and others argue that racial disparities in admissions testing results demonstrate larger failings in the public school system that would not be addressed by the mayor’s plan. “We need to fix the pipeline to make sure middle school students have the skills they need for the test,” he said, adding that after school SHSAT prep classes should be expanded.

Ray Liu, a 2000 graduate of Stuyvesant who attended the rally, said the main issue for many specialized high school alumni is fairness. “Having high standards that are fair is something we really want our alma maters to maintain,” he said.

“I’m not against changing the admissions standards, as long as it’s something that’s fair and applied consistently across the board to everyone,” he said, adding that course grades can vary by school and classroom, making them an unreliable metric. The mayor’s plan to accept the top 7 percent of students from each middle school, he said, would unfairly place students at some schools at a competitive disadvantage.

“It’s not about maintaining some proportion of Asian people in specialized high schools,” Liu said. “It’s about making sure that there’s fairness and consistency in the admissions process.”

The mayor and others have said that SHSAT results are unfairly tilted to students from families with the resources to pay for private tutoring and prep courses. (Prep books for the test are consistently in high demand at libraries—two SHSAT prep books were among the top 50 adult non-fiction titles in terms of check-outs over the last six months at the New York Public Library; over that period, SHSAT test prep books were checked out over 2,600 times.)

“It’s true, the test prep industry does thrive in Asian communities, but the parents have made a decision to spend their hard earned dollars on these classes,” Lee said, adding that parents often turn to private prep courses because they feel schools fail to adequately prepare students for the SHSAT.

“They’re doing this for survival,” he said. “They can’t rely on the public school system.”

“We hope that all this activity in the last few days has convinced the mayor and [Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza] that they should speak to us,” Lee said. “Of course diversity matters to us, but any solution should include everyone.”

Margaret Chin, who represents much of Lower Manhattan, including Chinatown, in the City Council, said in a telephone interview that the de Blasio administration did not do enough to solicit public input before announcing the plan. “I think mostly people were upset that they didn’t have a chance to voice their opinion or concern,” Chin said. “It’s important for the mayor and the chancellor to really get feedback from the people who are going to be impacted.”

In a June 6 letter to de Blasio, Chin called for a formal process to address Asian-American families’ concerns with the plan, which she wrote “does not address the fact that far too many students are at a disadvantage on the day of the SHSAT.”

Chin, an alumna of a specialized high school, Bronx Science, wrote that the city should “identify immediate ways to make the existing process fairer,” such as increasing outreach efforts to ensure that students know about the admission test when they begin middle school and expanding test prep programs for low-income students. “In the long-term, we must strive to make sure that our Middle Schools are preparing every student, regardless of race and socioeconomic status, for the rigors of the SHSAT,” Chin wrote.

“I really disagree with the mayor on this,” Chin said. “He could have started the conversation with the elected officials and the community and come up with a plan together to present to Albany.”

The state Assembly will not vote on legislation to eliminate the SHSAT before the current legislative session ends later this month, Speaker Carl Heastie said, in spite a move by the Assembly’s education committee to advance the bill.

Rebecca Seawright, who represents the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island in the Assembly and sits on the education committee, voted against the proposal and echoed Chin’s complaints about the lack of public discussion of the proposal. “I cannot support legislation on the future of specialized high schools with little opportunity for student, teacher, parent, alumni, and educator input,” Seawright said in a statement. “We must be thoughtful and look at the issue holistically, with all stakeholders present before making a decision which will impact millions of children and families in New York City for decades to come.”