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There IS One Way to Dispel Asian Parents’ Anger: Upgrade ALL NYC High Schools

December 6, 2018

Yesterday’s NYPost featured an article by Selim Algar describing a meeting NYC DOE officials held in Manhattan and the anger expressed by a group of Asian parents upset over the recent proposal that the SHSAT serve as the sole admissions criteria to elite high schools. Ms. Selim described the essence of the BOE’s proposal presented by Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack as “...a plan that aims to increase black and Latino enrollment at the primarily Asian and white schools by scrapping a single-test-score admission system.” At the gathering attended by 350 people, Mr. Wallack described the current admissions process, which is based on the scores on a single test given early in 8th grade, as “…a needless educational barricade,” saying that the DOE is trying “to find a way that is objective and transparent that gives us more information about a way a student has performed that we believe is better and fairer.”

Many parents, particularly Asian parents, do not find the admissions criteria to be unfair or ineffective. Ms. Selim writes:

Several Asian speakers highlighted the outsized toll the new plan would exact on their community.

Asian kids — including Chinese, Korean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students — make up roughly 60 percent of the population at the city’s eight specialized high schools.

At the most prestigious campuses such as Stuyvesant HS and Bronx Science, their numbers are higher.

“This proposal is nothing about education and all about division,” said objector Wai Wah Chin. “We are going to look at your race and say, ‘Oh, your parents cook the food, deliver it, they wash your clothes, but you can’t get in. Because we don’t like your race or national background.’ ”

For reasons that are complicated and not completely clear, Asian students tend to score better on standardized tests than American students, and students raised in poverty tend to score worse than children raised in affluence. From a cold analytic perspective, this difference would matter less if the tests had any predictive value in terms of a students ability to perform well in class. The SHSAT, like it’s kin the SAT, provides a nebulous “achievement” score that has no ability to determine whether a student scoring in the 95th percentile will succeed in class any more than a student who scores in, say, the 90th percentile. Indeed, on the SAT it is conceivable that missing one question might result in that kind of disparity in results. So, when a single test is the sole basis for admission many children who are arguably qualified to enter an “elite” program are left out.

The answer to this is to either expand the admission criteria to include things like GPA, teacher feedback, and unique student talents or to expand the number of “elite” high schools. As NYC is finding, altering the admissions criteria creates a zero-sum game that divides winners and losers. The second alternative, though, is costly and could result in those seeking to be identified as “elite” feeling that their status is eroded by expanding the number of students who qualify.

It is inevitable that individuals will sort themselves out over time and define themselves  based on comparisons with others. As much as possible, though, that sorting should occur organically and ideally without anyone being identified as a “loser”. The sorting in NYC is analogous to the sorting that happens in high school sports where 50 teams vie for a state championship and all but one team is defined as a loser. No matter how it is presented to an 8th grader, if they took the SHSAT and did not get into an “elite” school, they feel like the runner-up to the State Championship… and they are likely to see themselves as “losers”. The reality is that many of those “losers” will bounce back and be successful despite their relatively low test scores. But if any of those students see their failure to score high on a test as a defining moment, it is a loss to our society. No single test should define winners and losers… and every school system should be designed to offer an opportunity for students to find out where they can shine.

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