Equity for New York City Specialized High Schools

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, without consulting Asian American leaders or organizations, has proposed eliminating the standardized test that determines admission to the city’s top public high schools. This test, known as the SHSAT, or Specialized High School Admissions Test, has been taken by successfully thousands of immigrant and Asian American students who cannot afford private education. The mayor’s proposal will result in a 75% decrease in Korean-speaking students at these high schools. KAA therefore urges defeat of the mayor’s proposal in the New York State legislature.

Background: What’s so special about the “specialized high schools”

The crown jewels of the New York City public school system are its eight specialized high schools. The three largest and oldest of these — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech — were founded to educate students talented and advanced in science, mathematics and technology, and have produced fourteen Nobel Prize winners.

Since the 1930’s, admission to these schools has been determined by a single standardized test. Over the past few decades, the number of Asian American students has gradually increased – today, over fifty percent of the population of these high schools is Asian American. With median incomes at these schools at or near the poverty level, however, Asian American students at these schools are neither wealthy nor privileged.

Why this issue matters 

Mayor de Blasio’s publicly stated goal is to increase racial and ethnic diversity at New York’s top high schools. This is a commendable policy goal when executed transparently and standards remain consistently and equally applied to all students. However, his proposals significantly raise standards for students more likely to be Asian American, and lower standards for students more likely to be Latino or African American. Furthermore, the undertones in the public conversation suggest that the number of Asian American students must be reduced to more “palatable” levels. In fact, the NYC Department of Education projects that under the mayor’s plan,  the number of specialized high school seats now earned by students whose primary language spoken at home is Korean will be cut by 75%, more than any other ethnicity.

This is not just a New York issue; it is a national one. As Asian Americans we are keenly aware of these undertones throughout our society, at all levels of our educational system, both public and private. How many Asian Americans is too many? Even if the mayor’s proposal is well-intended, it is clear that it callously ignores the disproportionate and significantly adverse impact on the Asian American community.

Rather than focusing on strategies and programs that help all disadvantaged communities succeed on the entrance exam, the mayor has proposed to eliminate it. This directly hurts communities like ours that, for many years, have been playing by the rules and succeeding.

Most of the Asian American student body at New York’s specialized high schools, like many others, do not come from wealth or privilege. Entrance into these high schools has been a gateway of opportunity for poor and working-class families, including so many from our community. Many children in New York City and elsewhere feel the burden of helping their families assimilate into the American mainstream and break into the middle class. For them, the entrance exam is more than just a test. It is a ticket to the American dream.

Enough is enough. It’s time for our community to stand up for ourselves and for each other.

What we are doing about it

KAA is joining a wide-ranging coalition of other groups, including other Asian American organizations as well as a diverse group of alumni of the specialized high schools, to defeat Mayor de Blasio’s bill in the New York state legislature.

His bill, A10427, has been reported out favorably by the Education Committee of the New York State Assembly and introduced in the New York State Senate as S8503A. A floor vote in the Assembly has been postponed until 2019. If it passes in the Assembly as well as in the Senate, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signs it into law, the exam will be eliminated and replaced with the mayor’s plan (see below).

Throughout, KAA will maintain dialogue with leaders in the African American, Latino, and other communities across New York. For us, defending the test does not imply opposition to diversity or even affirmative action. Ultimately, we as immigrants and minorities must collaborate on issues that unite us rather than divide us.

An alternative proposal

While our focus is on defeating Mayor de Blasio’s bill, KAA is supportive of programs that improve education of under-served communities. Such programs include:

  • improving elementary and middle schools in high-needs areas to better prepare students for high school,
  • expanding gifted and talented education in all districts,
  • providing free tutoring that prepares students for the entrance examination, and
  • making more underrepresented minorities aware of the specialized high schools and encouraging them to take the entrance examination (Currently 4 out of 5 Asian American students take this exam, but only 1 out of 5 Latino students take it).

In our view, expansion and development of the Discovery Program, if implemented thoughtfully, is the right thing to do and promotes diversity without, in effect, unfairly and directly targeting our community. The recent program changes do not require legislative approval and have already been put into effect.

However, the Discovery program would become moot if the test is eliminated by the New York State legislature. Therefore, opposing this unfair bill is our immediate priority.

Read more below about the Discovery Program.

NYC Department of Education Presentation

Report on The SHSAT – Disparities Impacting Diversity, Opportunity and Achievement in NYC Public Schools

The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation recently published a report on the SHSAT, including a Comprehensive Action Plan for Change.

Click here for the executive summary.

Click here for the PDF version of the executive summary.

How you can help

Invest in Korean Americans in Action or its New York political action fund. Every gift will be matched one to one by a Korean American generous donor up to $100,000. Email sam.yoon@kaaction.org for more information.