EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published by Youth Communications and is reposted here with permission. YC is a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.
In June 2018, I heard that then-Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted to do away with the Standardized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT)—the exam New York City students take to get into one of eight specialized high schools. These specialized schools are seen as huge stepping stones into elite colleges.
Instead of using the SHSAT, the mayor’s new plan recommended admitting the top 7 percent of students in each middle school. According to de Blasio, specialized high schools did not reflect the diversity of the city, and the test was not an accurate measure of a student’s intelligence. He argued for setting aside 20 percent of the specialized seats for students enrolled in the Discovery program, which offers a second chance of gaining admittance to specialized schools to economically disadvantaged students who miss the cutoff score.
I tried to understand the argument, but as an Asian American, no one was asking for our input. My peers and I had spent years studying for the SHSAT, spending evenings at after-hour cram schools under the pressure from our parents to uplift our immigrant families. I believed the city was treating standardized testing as a game; pausing it after some players performed better than the others and arguing that the game wasn’t fair to begin with. Even though we did exactly what was asked of us, it felt like we were being punished.
Over the years, I never discussed my concerns about discarding the SHSAT with classmates, but I wanted to learn more about the issue of standardized testing. In a story for YouthComm Magazine, Richard Zhao wrote about benefiting from the Discovery program and getting into the specialized high school of his choice. He disagreed that the SHSAT should be the sole admission requirement: “I don’t think my eligibility for getting into any school should be based on one test.” I recently spoke with Vivian Louie, director of the Asian American Studies Center Program at Hunter College, who encouraged me to have the difficult conversations, and said they might help me better understand others’ perspectives on the SHSAT.
I created an anonymous survey and asked administrators at my school to send it to 11th grade students, and had some friends at other schools pass it along to their classmates. There were 10 questions ranging from “On a scale of 1-10 how fair do you think the SHSAT is?” to “Did you have access to test prep when preparing for SHSAT?”
I received 34 responses. “I find it bogus that a singular test determines if [you’re] good enough for the top schools,” said one comment. “Whilst the test does promote this idea of equal testing for all, people go into the test with different levels of preparedness as some go to specialized tutoring, which is paid for, whilst some don’t have the funds to do so,” said another.
Even though 70 percent of respondents received test prep, most people acknowledged that test prep is not available to everyone. “[It’s] definitely not accessible. It’s very expensive and my parents paid a lot to put me into prep. Also, prep places are very snobbish and they have this hierarchy. At one place we had rankings for our levels of understanding for both math and English and it did not feel well being ranked all the way in the bottom. You could tell there was more dedication put on students who were succeeding versus those who were not doing so well.”
After talking about the issue and learning more, I now understand that there isn’t as much racial diversity as one would hope in specialized high schools, and some changes could be made to the Discovery program and how its candidates are picked. I’ve thought more about the lack of equal opportunities. What if your family falls just above the income cutoff, but still lives in poverty—how can that be fair? Mayor de Blasio’s proposal never went into effect, and the new mayor, Eric Adams, said the state should determine the future of the SHSAT.
Maybe me saying all this sounds naive. I am a 16-year-old high school student who isn’t privy to the inner workings of how politicians and education policy-makers come up with these decisions. Even for standardized testing, many adults don’t think to listen to students’ opinions—or simply don’t care. Maybe the adults will read this story and begin to listen.