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Students at Stuyvesant High School in New York, 2020Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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The Test Will Set You Free

An excerpt from the new book ‘An Inconvenient Minority’ explores how the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test propelled generations of Jewish, Asian, Black, and Hispanic New Yorkers to success, and why it’s now being dismantled

Kenny Xu
July 13, 2021
Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Students at Stuyvesant High School in New York, 2020Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

To a largely poor Chinatown population lacking wealth or connections, New York City’s Specialized Schools are exceptional opportunities for kids of shopkeepers and restaurant managers to receive a quality education that enables them to attend a good college and become successful. In the 2012-13 academic year, 46.8% of people accepted to these Specialized Schools were on free or reduced lunch. These were not rich kids. These were the sons and daughters of aspirational parents who banked on education to help give their kids a better life.

Yiatin Chen is a mother and first-generation immigrant from China. Her own mother and father arrived in the United States with her when she was just 3, during the first wave of mid-20th-century Asian immigration in the early ’60s to ’70s, after an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act allowed more access to Asian immigrants. Yiatin’s parents were educated in Taiwan; her mother was a teacher. But when they came to America, they started over. “They had no language skills,” Yiatin explained. “Everything had to be built up again.”

A typical day in Yiatin’s crowded Manhattan apartment was full of manual labor. “We’d be stringing beaded necklaces for 5 cents apiece,” she said. “We would make batches … you would get a batch and have all the beads and the owner of the factory would bring that home.”

Yiatin’s mother had high aspirations for her daughters, rooted in her own aspirations to better herself in society. “My mom started off in a sweatshop,” she said, “but ended up in an office job.” Eventually they were able to move to the suburbs. Yiatin’s mom—despite her broken English—placed a strong emphasis on education, and Yiatin eventually attended the Bronx High School of Science (Bronx Science), a Specialized High School. Despite facing racism for her lack of initial language skills upon entry into America, Yiatin studied, with the encouragement of her mother, and got into Bronx Science—today still one of the top three Specialized Schools in New York City.

Yiatin has daughters now. She thinks about the opportunities she is able to open up to them because she speaks English fluently, because she is well integrated in the New York City social milieu. One of her daughters got into the Anderson School, a local gifted and talented middle school program. Another daughter took the SHSAT but failed to get into a Specialized High School. Yiatin didn’t despair, but she empathized with the impoverished families that would have. Unlike her less well-connected friends, Yiatin understands New York City’s inner educational workings from decades of living in the city. She was able to find a small, dual-language, English/Mandarin school on the Lower East Side and placed her daughter there. She is thriving and having an excellent academic experience, Yiatin said.

Not every child in New York City is as lucky to have Yiatin as a parent. Many of the poor Chinese parents in the city barely have English-language knowledge, let alone that of the complex social and political structures that underpin the educational bureaucracy in New York. “They rely on the Chinese newspaper,” she said of her Chinese friends. “The SHSAT [Specialized High Schools Admissions Test] is in the Chinese newspapers every week.”

The New York Specialized Schools became the prize of the New York City Chinese community because they represent more than a pathway to success—they represent a kind of meritocratic opportunity that they, as low-income, non-English speaking parents, could aspire to for their children. An opportunity that was open to people like them, regardless of their social connections.

Why? Because although the SHSAT is notoriously hard—covering a wide range of subjects and requiring hours of studying—it’s just one test. “The test is hard, but the process is very easy,” said Yiatin. “The Specialized High Schools are simple in that you take a test, you score high, and you get a spot. If you live in South Brooklyn, Flushing, you have a shot.”

And for those who doubt the efficacy of a school system built entirely on a single test, the Specialized High Schools prove the skeptics wrong again and again, every year, becoming some of the greatest incubators of homegrown American talent in the country. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg and biochemist Robert J. Lefkowitz, economist Thomas Sowell, actor Tim Robbins, sports journalist Mike Greenberg, politician Gary Ackerman, grocer magnate John Catsimatidis, and politician and convicted sex offender Anthony Weiner are all Specialized High School alumni. Bronx Science has produced eight Nobel Prize winners, the most of any secondary school in the world. Stuyvesant High School has produced four Nobel Prize winners, tied for second in the world. Manhattan Institute thinker Heather MacDonald commented that the Specialized High Schools “have nurtured nine Nobel laureates, hundreds of Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners, award-winning biologists and astrophysicists, astronauts, inventors, and captains of commerce.” She is right. They have justified their status as factories for New York City’s excellence.

“National Security Centers,” Chien Kwok called them. The New York-raised businessman went to Brooklyn Technical High School. After a stint in the record and music rights negotiating business, Chien lived in Hong Kong for 16 years, where he met his wife and had kids. But after 16 years in a foreign country, Chien felt the call of home. And there was one event that pushed him to come back to New York.

“My son got into a gifted program in New York,” he said.

Chien is grooming his sons for the educational path he took … through the Specialized Schools system he went through. He moved back to the United States to provide his son that opportunity. That is parental dedication—and the ultimate affirmation of worth to a promising young teen of the education the Specialized Schools can provide.

As a matter of truth, New York City’s Specialized Schools accomplish two great objectives that America needs today: They train the best and brightest minds in our society to accomplish their full potential, and they economically uplift some of the nation’s poorest immigrant communities in the process.

It’s a good deal, and it is accomplished by one foundational idea.

In an era when Harvard, Yale, and Princeton colluded to exclude Jews, the Bronx Science single test for admissions eliminated the possibility of human error in judgment.

During the early-to-mid-20th century heyday of New York City’s mega-expansion, a Jewish Polish science teacher named Dr. Morris Meister noticed that the Bronx needed a school to train the bright kids he encountered on the street of his borough in math and science. In 1938, he and the New York City Board of Education founded the Bronx High School of Science with the following premise: that the school would be open to all New York boys who achieved a top result in a competitive entrance exam engineered by Columbia University’s famous Teachers College.

We cannot ignore Dr. Meister’s Jewish background, here, and the historical context of this test’s development. In an era when Harvard, Yale, and Princeton colluded to systematically exclude Jews from elite colleges, the Bronx Science single test for admissions flatly eliminated the possibility of human error in judgment. In an era when Jewish Americans struggled to find placement in schools and jobs worthy of their skills, the Bronx High School of Science offered an opportunity to escape prejudice and be graded on a very empirical standard.

It was not like the Bronx High School of Science was “pro-Semitic,” or something like that. The test wasn’t a test of Hebrew or of the Torah. It was a straightforward math and reading exam that mirrored the public curricula of the day. But admissions solely based on a single test was a huge upgrade over the antisemitic “tests of fitness” and “character” that plagued striving Jews in this time. Jewish Americans and many other groups flocked to this school and made it their home. They gave Bronx High School of Science the reputation it now retains, in New York City and across the world. A place for excellence of all stripes.

The tests for admission to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech were later standardized to become the SHSAT. And as the three schools rose in influence and fame, the prestige associated with them rose correspondingly.

But so did unwanted attention on the selection process. An undercurrent of resentment was beginning to form against these prestigious schools that mirrored the often racially divided restlessness of the late 1960s. In 1971, the local school board of Manhattan’s largely Black and Hispanic District 3 called the SHSAT the abettor of “a privileged educational center” and compared it to an “intelligence test,” proposing that students should be admitted solely on the basis of teacher and administrative recommendations.

Nonetheless, by then there were enough Specialized High School alumni in influential positions in the city; when liberal New York City Mayor John Lindsay signaled deference to the left-dominated school board’s charges, Specialized School alumni revolted. They pushed the passage of the 1971 Hecht-Calandra Act, which permanently enshrined the SHSAT as the sole measure of admissions to these factories of excellence. The defiant reaction of SHS alumni, who otherwise trended liberal like most New Yorkers, is telling. Even at the height of social upheaval in the ’60s and ’70s, educated people understood that some things were worth preserving after all.

The SHSAT has since become the bête noire of the educational left. It has been called the emblem of New York’s educational “segregation.” It has been labeled as “racist” and lambasted as the epitome of “buying your way in.” Let’s examine this claim in its simplest form. This is a snippet of an SHSAT template widely used to mirror SHSAT questions:

One of the major ideas behind the SHSAT was that it would be a differentiator between groups of excellent students. For example, if every student who applies to a certain school has an A average (as many of the applicants do), how do you choose who to admit? The SHSAT is designed to do this very differentiation. It does so by mixing in different levels of questions on its reading and math programs. The test’s originators know that standardized eighth-grade exam questions would be too easy for the majority of the high achieving test-takers in New York City. So they add a few ninth-grade, even 10th-grade level questions into the mix. This way, they are able to make distinctions between groups of high achieving students.

This is the concession one makes for excellence. To launch a school truly aligned with the standards of the best and brightest, one must necessarily reject most people who apply. But how to most clearly separate out the best and brightest? Dr. Meister’s radical idea was that eliminating human error as much as possible was the key to eliminating prejudice. Allowing only the dispassionate analysis of standardization was best. You may call it cruel. But this vision of judgment as separate from prejudice has the root of its necessity in an even crueler history. For American Jews, the experience of prejudice was more salient than most. Better to decide on the basis of hard empiricism and incontestable logic than on the basis of human preference or tests of character and fitness, prone to all the prejudices to which humans are prone.

The blows against the SHSAT for “being racist” could only stick if standard English was racist, if basic algebra was racist. The left-dominated public education system is increasingly willing to make that concession, but that is a discussion for another time. In any case, the SHSAT has weathered its fair share of criticism, producing the best-prepared academic and research talent in graduating class after class, without fail, doing its job to maintain factories of excellence.

By 1973, Stuyvesant High School was 90% Jewish. Other minorities were represented as well. By 1982, Brooklyn Technical High School was 55% Black and Hispanic. Then, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, something happened. Brooklyn Tech’s Black and Hispanic population halved in nine years. Bronx Science’s went from 20% to 11%. Stuyvesant, which was always low in Black and Hispanic students, went from 8% to an even more minuscule 5%. Now, numbers are even starker. A dismal 14%, 9%, and 4% Black and Hispanic students were admitted to the class of 2017 at the big three Specialized Schools.

All the while, Asian Americans began to flood admissions into these schools. Stuyvesant went from 20% Asian to 40%. Then 50%. Now, 70%.

What happened? Aside from minor revisions, the test never changed. But something else did: the composition of New York’s intellectual high performers.

New York City once had an extremely robust gifted and talented citywide program that tracked high aptitude kids at every public school and placed them in courses matching their strengths. In 1990, The New York Times claimed that “virtually all of New York City’s school districts have gifted programs.” The New York Post described gifted and talented programs “in nearly every city school in the ’70s and ’80s.” These programs “tracked” students—which is to say, judged their ability and put well-qualified students in local accelerated programs with teachers and courses that catered to their intellectual ability.

But in the 1990s, progressive activists’ vendettas against differentiating by aptitude were finally realized. One example was in 1993: A progressive educator, Irma Zardoya, gained power in the Bronx’s 10th District. She immediately pushed for an end to the district’s “homogenous” gifted and talented programs, calling them pathways of privilege rather than opportunity. Throughout the ’90s, gifted and talented programs started disappearing across that district and the rest of the city. Ten years later, District 10’s Specialized High School admissions is down 80%, even as the population of the district has increased 25%.

Today, 10 out of 31 school districts with 88%-96% Black and Hispanic enrollment have only one K-5 gifted and talented program or none at all. Most Specialized High School students enter through a corresponding feeder program in middle school—and the elimination of those programs in these predominantly Black and Hispanic communities for the sake of “leveling the playing field” has robbed these communities of the level of success they once had in Specialized High Schools.

Lack of Black and Hispanic achievement on the highest level in New York City is a complex problem. Specialized High Schools admits were 4% self-described Black and 6% Latino for 2019. When New York Times education reporter Eliza Shapiro noted that in 2020, only 10 Black students got into Stuyvesant High School, some people—maybe even Shapiro—may have thought she was pointing out a flawed or racist test. Reality is, she was pointing out problems embedded much deeper in New York City’s public education system (which is two-thirds Black and Hispanic) than a single “racist” test.

In reality, admissions of Black and Hispanic students did not suffer in the years following the SHSAT’s 1971 enshrinement as the standard for admissions; they climbed.

In reality, admissions of Black and Hispanic students did not suffer in the years following the SHSAT’s 1971 enshrinement as the standard for admissions; they climbed. When the Hecht-Calandra Act passed, Brooklyn Tech was only a combined 25% Black, Hispanic, and Asian. Bronx Science was 90% white. In 1973, Stuyvesant was 90% Jewish. Five years after standardizing admissions under one test, Black and Hispanic enrollment climbed in both schools; Black and Hispanic enrollment in Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science went to 38% and 25% of the admitted class, respectively, by 1976. Brooklyn Tech’s highest percentage Black and Hispanic admission was in 1982 at 55%—11 years after the SHSAT was introduced.

Take that in: One of the three most prestigious public schools in the entire city—possibly the country, at the time—had a makeup of 55% Black and Hispanic students.

Black and Hispanic representation at the Specialized Schools remained high until about 1996. Then began a horrifying, mesmerizing decline. Fourteen percent, 9%, and 4% Black and Hispanic enrollment for the class of 2017 at the big three Specialized High Schools is a far cry from the 55% of 1982.

Is this a problem? Yes, a huge one! If Specialized High School admissions are proxies for New York City’s public school system’s ability to create excellence in local communities, then we are witnessing a gigantic crash of Black and Latino excellence in the city! A massive chasm in the ability of students to receive first-rate educations at New York City public schools! This is a startling indictment of the educational performance of the city’s public school system and its disservice to low-income Black and Latino communities over the past 50 years. It’s yet another data point showing why the city’s charter school industry piles on expansive wait lists and New York, the richest city in the world, can’t provide for its neediest citizens.

And there are other distressing data points: New York City spends more, at over $28,000 per student per year (2019 data), than any state average in the nation and almost single-handedly moves the state of New York to highest in per-student spending in the entire nation. (By contrast, the national average for student spending per annum is $11,762.) And what does the Big Apple have to show for it?

According to The New York Times, “About 46 percent of the city’s third through eighth graders passed the state math exam, a three percentage point increase from last year, and just over 47 percent of students passed the English exam, up about one point compared with last year.” Less than half of New York City students demonstrate proficiency in math and English by the eighth grade. And although public school defenders are keen to point out that the 46%-47% proficiency is higher than the state average (of 45% English and 46% math), the city’s public school results are also significantly less than the results of its charter schools (54% English and 59% math). This is despite the fact that charter schools (which by law cannot have selection criteria for its incoming students) receive only $16,343 per pupil—less than 60% of funding available per capita to public school students. Almost 93% of NYC charter school students are either Black or Hispanic.

The New York City Board of Education, unfortunately, has a tool to obfuscate the real issues facing these students: grade inflation. Disreputable schools can move students from grade to grade without adequately investing in their actual learning. In some of these schools, grade fraud runs rampant, and the number of students in the city who pass math classes but fail basic math performance tests is high. Over 140 of its high schools have grades with 90% state math exam failure rates, according to the New York Post—but implicit “no-fail” policies allow them to pass their students anyway. The Post reports:

At highly rated Maspeth High School in Queens, students know they can play hooky, skip course work, flunk tests — and still pass. They call it the “Maspeth Minimum,” meaning everyone gets at least the minimum grade or score needed to pass or graduate, no matter what. Whistleblowers call it fraud. The secret to the school’s 98% graduation and 90% Regents pass rate, they say, is simple: “Cheat!” Four teachers told The Post that the 2,100-student high school — awarded a prestigious National Blue Ribbon in 2018 by the federal secretary of education — has an unwritten but iron-clad “no-fail policy,” even for kids who repeatedly don’t do the work or even show up.

In fact, 80%-94% of students in some NYC public middle schools passed their math classes, while in those same schools 2%-15% passed their math exams.

And finally, despite both grade inflation and extremely high per-student spending, the graduation rate at New York City Public Schools is still a miserable overall 65%—lower by far than the national average.

New York City public schools can do much better, especially given their pool of funding. It will be difficult; all education reform is. But while reform happens (or does not happen), education-oriented parents, exemplified by the New York City Chinese community, will not sit and wait for schools to catch up.

That’s why conscientious Chinese parents in New York are so desperate to get their kids into a Specialized High School.

Excerpted from the newly released book An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy by Kenny Xu (Diversion Books, 2021).

Kenny Xu is the author of An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy (Diversion Books, 2021) and the President of Color Us United, which advocates for a race blind America.