Admissions Test Prep: Stepping Stone to Asian Americans, Considered Unfair by Others

New York City’s top academic high schools like Bronx Science (pictured above) and Stuyvesant have one entrance criteria:  performance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). While many Asian American families look at SHSAT preparation courses as a stepping stone to these elite schools and to a better life, others consider test prep to be an unfair advantage and are suing to have the system changed, saying that having one test as the entire admissions criteria is racially discriminatory, particularly for those who can’t afford test prep. The eight New York high schools are that use the SHSAT are 59% Asian American.

Many students start the prep process just after 6th grade and work for over a year to get into one of the eight selective high schools.  Test preparation classes can cost $2000. New York provides a free test preparation program that starts in the summer after 6th grade and goes on for 16 months in preparing for the test. Originally targeting African American and Hispanic students, it was later opened to all students under a certain family income level. 43% of the students in the program are now Asian American. The New York Times article talked about a boy from a poor Chinese immigrant family who attended this program and got into Stuyvesant. I’m not sure how you can say that test prep is discriminatory if there are free programs available and attended by children who are not wealthy.

While I personally think the one test admission system is a bad idea, I suspect that adding other criteria like grades and activities is not going to drastically decrease the number of Asian Americans. The situation would become similar to what I see in Silicon Valley in applying to selective private high schools.  Admissions are not based on solely on one test, but instead of eliminating admissions test prep, test prep has become just one of a number of items that students worry about. Number Two Son is applying to two of those high schools this year, and he worries incessantly about grades and activities in addition to taking test prep. I suspect that if you added more criteria, Asian American families in New York would treat those as yet more things to prep for. Who would blame them?

What I definitely would not like to see is a defined cap based on ethnicity. The selective public high school in San Francisco, Lowell, was affected by an NAACP lawsuit that instituted a cap of 45% on any ethnicity in the school. This made the standards for admissions for Chinese Americans much higher than other groups, and a suit by Chinese Americans eventually had the strict cap lifted.

I understand the desire to have the makeup of New York’s elite high schools closer to that of the city, which is 70% African American and Hispanic. I don’t think that one test admissions systems are a good idea.  But the lawsuit seems to be trying to treat symptoms and ignore the real fix, which is better K-8 education for all.

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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