Katherine Sanchez, a 16-year-old with curly hair and glasses, is unique among her peers at Stuyvesant, one of eight specialized high schools considered the “crown jewels” of New York City’s public education system. In seventh grade, when she found out about the entrance exam—a single three-hour test known as the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT—she enrolled in a local prep school on the weekends. During the summer before eighth grade, Sanchez upped that commitment to five days a week, spending four hours each day being taught to the test. “You’re not learning material that’s relevant,” Sanchez told me. “You’re like, ‘How can I do these questions as fast as possible? How can I get used to these questions?’”
Of course, other students at Stuy also spend years cramming for the SHSAT. But unlike the vast majority of them, Sanchez is Latina. In 2016, Stuyvesant’s school newspaper found that, in comparison to Asian students, black and Latinx students were more likely to start studying later and on their own. Even in prep school, Sanchez recalled being the only Latina in a majority-Bengali class. Aside from kids in the honors class, most of the students in her middle school in the Bronx hadn’t heard of the SHSAT or specialized high schools.
In fact, Sanchez was told that she was the first person from her middle school to get into Stuyvesant in over a decade. “I don’t know anyone from my school who takes the 2 uptown after 42nd Street,” Sanchez told me in August, as she gave me a tour of Castle Hill, the predominantly working-class Latinx and black neighborhood where she grew up. When pressed, she conceded that she had heard rumors of a freshman at Stuy who also lives in the Bronx.
Stuyvesant has been criticized in recent years because of one stark fact: almost no black or Latinx students attend. In the 2015-2016 school year, the student body was 74 percent Asian-American and 20 percent white. Only 3 percent of students were Latinx and even less—1 percent—were black. This school year, black and Latinx students made up only 10 percent of offered seats across all eight specialized high schools, despite making up nearly 70 percent of the city’s public school population overall.
Sanchez, whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic, is acutely aware of the disparity. She had rarely even gone into Manhattan before high school, let alone the posh neighborhood of Tribeca where Stuyvesant is located. Entering the school itself was a culture shock, especially when it was clear many of the students already knew each other. “Waiting on the bridge for the doors to open on the first day was so scary, just standing there,” Sanchez said. “Everyone was in clusters, but I knew nobody.”
In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed changing the admissions policies of the city’s specialized high schools in an effort to integrate them. Under de Blasio’s proposal, the SHSAT would be phased out over three years and eventually replaced with a system that automatically admits the top 7 percent of students from every middle school in the city, based on a combination of grades and state exam scores. He also wants to expand the Discovery Program, which sets aside a certain number of seats for low-income students. According to city officials, the impact of eliminating the test would be sweeping: When the new plan is fully implemented, 45 percent of offers would go to black and Latinx students.
In response, many in the city’s Asian-American community, which is represented in lopsided numbers in the city’s specialized high schools, rose in protest. Spurred mainly by New York’s vocal Chinese-American community and alumni groups, protesters amassed outside de Blasio’s office, chanting, “Keep the test!” They claimed that the move was racist, targeting a disadvantaged minority that historically has had little clout in New York politics compared to other minorities. Their protests were quickly plastered all over the news, adding yet another layer of racial tension to the effort to fix the most segregated school system in the country.
Though the plan did not pass muster with the state legislature, it created the opening for a summer of outrage from members of the Asian community, some of it fueled by legitimate grievances (a “profound sense of powerlessness” as Jiayang Fang put it in The New Yorker), some by resentment toward other minority groups. As Kenneth Chiu, president of the New York Asian American Democratic Club and one of the most outspoken leaders against de Blasio’s plan, told NY1: “He never had this problem when Stuyvesant was all white. He never had this problem when Stuyvesant was all Jewish. All of a sudden, they see one too many Chinese and they say, ‘Hey, it isn’t right.’”
The outrage surrounding De Blasio’s plan also prompted some difficult questions: If racial integration is essential to educational equality, as many education experts believe, then are Asian-Americans an obstacle to that equality? Is the scramble for opportunity the zero-sum game that Asian activists make it out to be? And, more broadly, where do Asian-Americans fit in this city’s minority politics?
From a young age, Amy Lam knew that specialized high schools were the path she was expected to take. “I didn’t have much of a choice,” said Lam, a 17-year-old senior at Brooklyn Tech. She started preparing for the SHSAT, which tests students on English and math, in sixth grade, two full years before the test is usually taken. She attended a free program that she was accepted into in the Upper West Side, but her mother felt that wasn’t enough, so she enrolled Lam into a second, paid program in Chinatown. At that point, Lam was going to test prep every weekday after school for two hours. On Saturdays, she went to both prep classes, studying from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Lam grew up in a public housing complex in Chelsea. When her parents moved to New York City from China in the 1990s, they first worked as fruit vendors in Chinatown. Her mother, who speaks mostly Cantonese, is now a home attendant.
As we sat in the one-room office of New York’s Chinese Progressive Association, where Lam interned this summer to help register voters, she belied the stereotype of the personality-less Asian student who is interested in nothing but her studies. She was quietly confident, well-spoken, and fully aware of the politics surrounding the school she attends. She had already thought about what she might do with her life, saying that her dream college was Georgetown and that she was interested in pursuing a law career.
In Lam’s mother’s eyes, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science were the gold standard, while Brooklyn Tech was a safety school. What about other public high schools? “When I was researching high schools I would be like, ‘Hey mom there’s this good high school that’s not specialized,’” Lam said. “And she’d be like ‘Oh do you want that to be your other safety?’”
This intense focus on specialized high schools is common for New York’s Asian immigrant community. “My mom mostly talked to Asian-American moms,” Lam said. “She met them either at my test prep place, even on WeChat, and pretty much all they talked about on there was ‘Oh my son went to Bronx Science.’”
This do-or-die mentality is partly a product of New York’s labyrinthine public school system. The SHSAT offers a bright, simple path for the city’s poor Asian immigrant population, many of whom face language barriers and a dearth of accessible information. And in many of these immigrants’ ancestral countries in East Asia and South Asia, rigorous test prep is a cultural norm.
“A lot of newly arrived Asian immigrants have this erroneous idea that there are three public schools that are good and then there’s the abyss,” explained Amy Hsin, a professor of sociology at CUNY and a member of the city’s school diversity advisory group. “And we have these test prep companies who are feeding off of that fear. You see these immigrant families who don’t have a lot of money spending enormous amounts of money prepping these children to test to get into these schools.”
This deep investment is evident in the numbers: In addition to dominating Stuyvesant, Asians comprise 62 percent of the student body at Bronx Science, and 61 percent at Brooklyn Tech. New York City’s public school population itself is 16 percent Asian. (White students are also overrepresented, garnering 27 percent of offers to specialized high schools this year, despite the fact that they make up 15 percent of the city’s students.) Their outsized presence makes them wary of change, particularly since de Blasio didn’t offer Asian-American communities any kind of recompense for a proposal that would disproportionately affect them. They would just have to take the hit.
Asian-American community groups were blindsided by the mayor, whose office failed to consult them before the proposal went public. Shino Tanikawa, a school integration advocate, told me that de Blasio’s proposal was part of a depressingly familiar pattern of Asian-Americans either being lumped in with white people or brushed aside. Tanikawa agreed that the admissions system needs to be reformed, but pointed out that for de Blasio “to not even talk to any Asian community leaders before he made the announcement, it’s disrespectful. It’s another example of, what about us, do we not exist?”
Richard Carranza, New York City’s new school chancellor, made matters worse when he bluntly told a local news organization, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.” And by failing to get buy-in from New York’s Asian-American community, de Blasio undermined his own project. “Those people are needed,” Mae Lee, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, told me, referring to the mainly Chinese-American contingent that is rallying against de Blasio’s plan. “We need to draw those people in more and it’s not being done.”
It didn’t help that it was easy to read de Blasio’s announcement as a cynical political move. He campaigned on integrating specialized high schools in 2013, but he let the issue languish until this summer. De Blasio has often said that his hands are tied because reforming the admissions system needs approval by the state legislature, but he also announced it less than a month before the end of the legislative session, meaning that it was almost surely going to be shunted to next year—which is exactly what ended up happening. And if he wanted to, de Blasio could re-designate five of the specialized high schools and change their admissions policies on his own.
Furthermore, the focus on specialized high schools, which make up only 6 percent of the city’s entire public high school system, fails to address the greater, systemic problem of school segregation throughout the city. “It really is a challenging issue because it ends up being a debate about a small number of schools that you can’t really have without opening up a much bigger questions about screening,” said Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation who focuses on integration policy in New York. “I’m hopeful that a year from now we can look back and say this is just one of multiple fronts that the administration has been looking at to tackle segregation.” Addressing just a few high schools out of an entire K-12 system is, in many ways, a distraction from the bigger issues.
Still, the fact remains that specialized high schools are in dire need of integration. Unless New York gets rid of elite schools altogether, which some advocates have in fact proposed, it will have to diversify them in some way. This inevitably means that Asian-Americans will have to figure out where they fit into this new reality—and, perhaps, reassess their political priorities when it comes to their kids and New York City’s school system.
Sanchez took me to a small park in Castle Hill not far from where she grew up, before she moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Morris Park with her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and her three siblings. Sanchez now finally has her own bedroom, an exciting development that she told me she is definitely “still not over.” When we first started speaking, Sanchez was a little nervous, but quickly opened up about her experiences. Despite her criticisms of New York’s school system, Sanchez cheerfully pointed out all the things she loves about Stuyvesant—her peers and teachers, the fact that Tribeca is “really nice.” She told me that she wants to go to Wesleyan, but is worried about burdening her mother with the cost of tuition—a whole other educational system they’ll have to navigate.
The test’s proponents claim that the SHSAT is the only truly meritocratic method of admitting students into specialized schools, and that getting rid of it will compromise these schools’ academic integrity. This is despite the fact that the test itself has been subject to very little evaluation. In August, the education news site Chalkbeat obtained through a public records request a 2013 study from the mayor’s office that de Blasio declined to release, showing that the SHSAT is a strong predictor of academic achievement. Yet outside experts told Chalkbeat that the study didn’t answer the question of whether alternative admissions methods would admit just as strong or even better students.
Hsin, the sociology professor, told me, “If you were to put aside any concerns about goals of diversity at all and you just wanted to come up with mechanism for identifying the most talented individuals to be admitted to specialized high schools, you would never come up with the admissions policy you have now.” Grades, which are repeated measures over time, are considered better indicators of academic acumen. It’s also been shown that they are better than standardized test scores when it comes to predicting success for black and Latinx students.
And if you put aside the evidence—or lack thereof—regarding the effectiveness of the test, defending the status quo means defending the idea that admitting black and Latinx students would bring down the quality of the student body, as New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones has pointed out.
This racist principle is baked into the history of the admissions policy itself. The original bill that mandated the use of a single standardized test was passed in 1971 by state legislators in order to preempt moves by the city to try to make the specialized schools more diverse. According to Politico, state legislators at the time argued that the bill would “protect the current status and quality of specialized academic high schools in New York City.”
Sanchez told me that many of her peers at Stuyvesant have been talking about the mayor’s proposal since it came out. Common remarks that she’s heard include things like, “People aren’t being accepted because they aren’t smart” and “Stuy is ruined.” I asked her how she feels when she hears those responses. Sanchez paused for a beat, then said, “I think it’s just insensitive to think that way.”
Asians in America have long sat at the messy crux where minority politics and education meet. They are often the poster-children of conservative attempts to roll back affirmative action and integration, despite being some of these policies’ biggest beneficiaries. The model minority myth—the idea that Asians are successful because they have better values and work harder than other minorities—is pervasive, and often used as a cudgel by whites against black and Latinx Americans for their supposedly wayward values and lax worth ethic.
The sight of Asian-Americans marching against integration efforts in New York City plays into these storylines. It is why Donald Trump’s Justice Department is siding with Asian-American students challenging affirmative action programs at Harvard, which they say discriminate against them by privileging less qualified students.
How did they reach this point? For one, because most of the Asian adult population are immigrants, they lack a lived understanding of America’s racial history. Asians have been excluded by this country’s racist immigration policies (see: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), but they have also benefited from the loosening of immigration laws in 1965 that brought in more highly educated Asian immigrants. Those trends are set to accelerate: The foreign-born population in the U.S. is at a record high thanks to Asians, according to new Census data, and more Asians with college degrees are expected to emigrate to the country in coming years.
There is also the glaring fact that Asian-Americans—who hail from a vast continent composed of different cultures and ethnicities—are far from a unified group. In fact, a survey by AAPI Data, a policy research site, shows that the Asian-American opposition to affirmative action is almost entirely driven by Chinese-Americans.
Historically, Chinese-Americans have been on both sides of the civil rights divide. OiYan Poon, a professor at Colorado State University, noted two examples that should have resonance for Asian-Americans involved in the ongoing controversies surrounding minority rights and education. First was the case of Gong Lum, a Chinese immigrant who lived in the Jim Crow South in the 1920s. When Lum’s daughter was placed in a colored school, he sued, trying to get his daughter into the local white school. Lum lost the case in Supreme Court, but the battle he chose to fight—securing the privileges of whiteness for his daughter, rather than against a racist system—is instructive. “You can imagine how that case could have been a different possibility,” Poon pointed out. “It could have been Brown vs. Board of Education. Instead Gong Lum argued, ‘We want to be white.’”
Poon juxtaposed this approach with the 1974 Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols, in which Chinese students who weren’t fluent in English had been recently integrated into the San Francisco Unified School District, which wasn’t providing them with English language instruction. The parents of Kinney Kinmon Lau, along with other non-English-speaking Chinese parents, argued that their Fourteenth Amendment rights were being violated since their children did not have equal educational opportunities. They won the case and secured the right to supplemental language education for non-English speaking minorities across the board. In collaboration with the Latinx community, Poon explained, the Chinese community was able to “push for systemic transformation and totally new possibilities.”
In New York today, members of the Asian community have lined up behind a system that results in blatant racial disparities. And they are doing so without examining the costs this system extracts, alongside the clear benefits it provides to a select few. The SHSAT effectively functions as a tax on poor Asian immigrants, both in terms of the actual dollars spent on prep courses as well as the years of childhood spent studying for a test that has little real-world relevance. “Thirteen- and 14-year olds don’t want to spend a lot of their sixth and seventh grade locked up in a classroom on weekends preparing for this dumb test,” Jade Wong, a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a senior at Brooklyn Tech, told me.
Lam said that when her mother found out about de Blasio’s plan, even she acknowledged that “maybe now certain students can focus more on their grades in middle school, focus into getting into a high school they would actually like to go, that they won’t have to study hours and hours to get into.” Potter, the education policy researcher, pointed out that in Brooklyn’s 15th District, which is going through a similar debate about integration and screening, she found that even advocates of screening recognized that the system felt broken. “If we started with this premise around specialized high schools,” Potter said, “we would find many folks in the Asian American community for whom that would resonate.”
In a broader sense, these specialized schools not only fail the black and Latinx community, but cannot even serve the vast bulk of the disadvantaged Asian-American community. Forgotten in the debate are the Asian children who are turned away; the ones who get in, but then struggle with mental health issues; the ones who would have flourished in different or more diverse schools.
Despite media headlines that might indicate otherwise, the city’s Asian-American community—which, again, includes an impossible multitude of ethnicities and immigrant experiences—is far from unified in opposition to the mayor’s plan. In July, a group of Asian-American alumni from specialized high schools published an op-ed that called for reform of the admissions process, writing, “Asian Americans ought to stand in solidarity with all marginalized communities by advocating for equity in the educational opportunities and outcomes of all New York City students.” That same week, Asian-Pacific American community groups released a statement arguing that “diverse and inclusive school environments are beneficial to all students” and that the city needs to “address inequities in education across Pre-K through 12th grade and examine current processes and admission policies.”
Barring action from politicians, Asian parents will also have to be convinced that there are alternative paths to success in this country, and that the binary of “test or no test” is failing all minorities in one way or another. As Lam put it to me, “It would benefit parents to know that it doesn’t have to be this way.”