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The Last Holdouts of American Meritocracy

The campaign against New York’s exam for specialized schools punishes the children of working-class immigrants in the name of racial equity

by
Sheluyang Peng
June 07, 2023
Danielle Hyams/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Danielle Hyams/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

In late October 2012, as Hurricane Sandy was set to crash upon the shores of New York City, I remember standing in front of a newsstand in my neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and scanning the headlines. A Chinese-language newspaper, the Sing Tao Daily, displayed a large photo of the white vortex on the front page. Below that was a banner: “SHSAT Postponed To November 18.”

What exactly is the SHSAT—something so important to Chinese-language New Yorkers that its postponement received top billing alongside one of the biggest natural disasters to ever strike the city? The Specialized High School Admissions Test (commonly abbreviated as the SHSAT) is the sole gatekeeper of admission into New York City’s specialized public high schools, some of the most prestigious public schools in the entire country. It is also a central battleground in a conflict over what kind of country America should be.

In working-class Sunset Park, where half the population is foreign-born and much of the other half is made up of the children of the foreign-born, tutoring centers are ubiquitous in the Asian-populated cross section. An array of acronyms fill the front windows of each tutoring center: SHSAT, PSAT, SAT, ACT, AP. While some immigrants may not have a full grasp of the English language, they can still understand that these acronyms serve as symbols of upward mobility—and of a meritocracy where access to elite spaces is not about knowing the right people and signaling the right cultural cues, but about competency on an exam that anyone can pass with enough studying. That’s what drew Jewish immigrants in droves to specialized high schools decades ago. And in an era where elite colleges consistently rank Asian applicants lower in “personality” metrics—a loophole that allows them to impose quotas and cap the number of incoming Asian students in the name of increasing “diversity”—it’s no wonder why many Asian immigrants are working to preserve standardized testing.

The children of Asian immigrants, like myself and the current and former students who spoke with me for this article, still tend to see the test as a good thing. For us, a colorblind, meritocratic admissions system is not only perfectly consistent with liberal ideals, but also serves as a crucial engine of economic mobility.

On the other side of the debate, the fight to eliminate the SHSAT is led by a cohort of identity rights activists, wealthy progressives, and other members of the professional-managerial class who depict the test as an oppressive tool of racial segregation. These people are represented by leading figures in the liberal educational establishment and by institutions like The New York Times, which published an article last week decrying the “lack of diversity” in city schools, while also noting that Asian students were offered 53% of all seats in the specialized high schools this year. The Times article also describes the restoration of “tougher criteria” at specialized high schools as a move that is “worrying integration advocates.” In other words, the article and its supporters argue that people who support rigorous academic standards that are applied without regard for race or ethnicity are segregationists. And indeed, that is exactly how it was characterized by The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch, who responded to the revelation about a testing system in which Asians dramatically outperform whites and every other group by tweeting about “segregationist admission statistics,” which he labeled “an ongoing disgrace.”

A colorblind, meritocratic admissions system is not only perfectly consistent with liberal ideals, but also serves as a crucial engine of economic mobility.

The case for racial equity in New York’s schools was made most explicitly by former Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza who, in arguing against the SHSAT in 2018, remarked that “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.” His statement set off a wave of grassroots protests from Asian American parents, who knew exactly which “ethnic group” he was talking about.

Despite Carranza’s suggestion that a single homogenous group was unfairly monopolizing the top schools, the reality looks very different. During the four years I attended Stuyvesant, the most selective of all the specialized high schools, I witnessed a dazzling variety of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. Students wearing kippahs commingled with students clad in hijabs. Students from the West Indies socialized with students from India. Students from various East Asian backgrounds coagulated around similar interests: bubble tea, Korean pop music. No Stuyvesant student would ever claim that “one ethnic group” dominated the school.

The common thread that linked students of all stripes was the immigrant experience. During a social studies class one day, the teacher asked us to raise our hands if we had at least one grandparent born outside the U.S. Every single hand shot up. The teacher then dramatically shrunk the question’s scope to only apply to students with two foreign-born parents. Even then, only a few hands came down. Some students were immigrants themselves, coming with their family to America before high school and still managing to secure admission into the halls of upward mobility.

What is most notable about the schools, and yet goes largely ignored in the anti-SHSAT racial equity discourse, is that the immigrant dynamic operates separately from race. When The New York Times published a profile in 2012 of a Black student at Stuyvesant, titled “To Be Black at Stuyvesant High,” the student profiled was a Jamaican immigrant. The piece mentioned the former president of Stuyvesant’s Black Students Association, who is also Jamaican. The Times seemingly never gets tired of this subject, and ran another profile of Black Stuyvesant students seven years later. In that piece, every student profiled either had one non-Black parent or was from a Nigerian, Eritrean, or Kenyan immigrant family.

While New York’s top public schools are still full of the children of immigrant strivers, many among the city’s white liberal elites—America’s white saviors, as Zach Goldberg dubbed them—prefer sending their children to private schools that cost tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition. These same private-school parents partake in cost-free virtue signaling by demanding that the SHSAT be eliminated to ensure more “diversity.” In fact, The New York Times seems to have made it a mission to guilt these parents into supporting the equity agenda. In 2020, the paper put out a podcast called Nice White Parents, then followed that up with a piece about “How White Progressives Undermine School Integration.” The podcast and article fail to consider the roles Asian American parents have played in the education debate. Indeed the only mention of Asians is a throwaway line where one panelist declares that both “white and Asian families” were complicit in opposing “integration,” and later mentions “white and privileged parents”—a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that casts Asians as oppressors of people of color, despite the fact that Asians are people of color.

But while the test-based system is presented as racist and backward, the evidence shows the opposite. Not only does it favor students from Asian backgrounds, it does so despite their relative lack of resources. Half the students at specialized high schools currently qualify for subsidized lunches. In contrast to media portrayals of “crazy rich Asians,” Asian Americans are the poorest racial group in New York City.

One example of such a story is Tenzin (first name withheld for privacy reasons), a rising senior at Bronx Science who was voted vice president of her school’s National Honor Society. Her grandparents were Tibetan separatists who followed the Dalai Lama into exile in India after the unsuccessful 1959 Tibetan uprising, where her parents were born. They then immigrated to the Woodside neighborhood of Queens, where the largest concentration of Tibetans in America reside. Her parents still prepare Indian dishes at home.

Like many other students at specialized high schools, Tenzin comes from a working-class family. Her mother is a hotel housekeeper and her father drives a taxi. Though her parents were not well educated themselves, they raised their children to value hard work and academic success.

As a rising senior, Tenzin expressed anxiety over her college prospects. She has heard horror stories from other Bronx Science students about Asian applicants with stellar academic records being rejected from schools that they thought were on their level. This scenario is playing out in high schools and at kitchen tables across America—a “growing consensus among Asian American families and their teen-age children,” Jay Caspian Kang recently wrote in The New Yorker, “that these colleges do not want them on their campuses, regardless of their accomplishments.”

Despite the increasing difficulty, Asian Americans are still finding success in the city’s specialized high schools—and many graduates remind us of the value of these schools for immigrants and their children. Tahseen Chowdhury is one such person, successfully navigating the treacherous terrain of identity and achievement in 21st-century America.

Chowdhury grew up in Queens, the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world. His family lived in a tiny apartment in the Bengali enclave of East Elmhurst where the steady roar of planes from nearby LaGuardia Airport symbolized the willingness of many to pack everything up and travel halfway across the world. Growing up, his father was a deli worker making sandwiches for minimum wage, while his mother delivered newspapers. His parents did not have the chance to climb the ladder of upward mobility themselves, but they wanted that chance for their children.

A central pillar of NYC’s Bengali communities is the presence of Khan’s Tutorial centers. Founded in 1994 by the late Dr. Mansur Khan, Khan’s Tutorial has rapidly grown to 10 locations around the New York area. Chowdhury showed me a heuristic for finding Bengali Americans: putting Khan’s Tutorial into Google Maps shows all the Bengali enclaves nearby.

Khan’s Tutorial informs Bengali immigrants about the SHSAT and its role as an economic mover for the children of poor immigrants. Chowdhury’s parents could not afford to pay for test prep out-of-pocket, so they delayed buying a home and put his tuition on a credit card. The sacrifice paid off when their son got into Stuyvesant.

After graduating from Stuyvesant in 2018, Chowdhury attended Macaulay Honors College, an extremely selective honors program created by the City University of New York (CUNY) to attract low-income but high-achieving students. Chowdhury is now a consultant at Accenture, where he works with state and local governments managing their health care systems. His father still works in the same deli, while his mother is now a health aide. One day he will make enough money to pay back their sacrifice many times over.

The New York Times seems to have made it a mission to guilt parents into supporting the equity agenda.

It is not clear if these schools will continue to incubate and champion the city’s immigrants. The Stuyvesant alumni and sociology professors Syed Ali and Margaret M. Chin have studied the stories of people like Tenzin and Chowdhury in depth. In 2018, they wrote about how the specialized SHSAT-based schools lift families out of poverty.

In the United States, if a child’s parents are poor, he or she is generally likely to grow up to be poor, or a little less so. But, as we’ve found in our research among Stuyvesant graduates, New York’s specialized schools obliterate that correlation … Nearly all of these kids went to college, often selective ones, and most went on to do well professionally. The poorer students became middle- or upper-middle class, and the middle-class students often did better than their parents.

As the Supreme Court is set to strike down race-based affirmative action in SFFA v. Harvard, standardized testing will once again be thrust into mainstream discourse. In recent years, over 80% of American colleges—including every Ivy League college—have dropped standardized testing requirements, which Asians tend to score the highest on. The same is happening in law schools. As colleges attempt to find new ways to close the gates on qualified Asians, they will increasingly rely on “holistic” approaches designed to circumvent the court’s decision.

While challenges to NYC’s elite admissions system have been successfully repelled (for now), other school districts have not been so lucky. In late 2020, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a public school outside of Washington, D.C., that U.S. News ranked the top high school in America, replaced its admissions exam with an essay. The Asian population plummeted from 73% to 54%—and a federal appellate court ruled that there was no evidence of discrimination, despite the fact that only the Asian population went down. As is the case with Jewish “overrepresentation,” Asian success is now viewed as a problem to be solved rather than a celebration of American progress.

Similar test-banning efforts are happening across the country in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Boston’s and San Francisco’s top public high schools have already adopted zoning and lottery-based admissions standards. New York City has been the last holdout in the war against American meritocracy. As the Supreme Court is set to push education to the forefront of America’s culture wars, and as the DEI regime continues its long march through America’s institutions, the need to preserve standardized testing—the bias-free measures of merit that allowed so many children of working-class immigrants past and present the chance for upward mobility—is more important than ever.


Sheluyang Peng is a writer living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. His writing can be found at societystandpoint.substack.com.

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