March 23, 2014

NG | The Story Behind the Data

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By KAI SAM NG

I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York City, which at Cornell is not a rare occurrence. Two weeks ago, two pieces of news about my alma mater appeared: The first was that our ex-librarian was convicted of plotting to kidnap, rape, torture and kill women and girls. We all slept better! The second bit of news was that thousands of hopeful eighth-graders received offers of admission from Stuyvesant and the other Specialized High Schools that require the Specialized High School Admissions Test. 27,817 students took the test, and 952 of those received offers from Stuyvesant. That made for an effective 3.4 percent admission rate.

The SHSAT is enormously competitive; combined with tens of thousands of hopeful parents every year who want to get their children into a Specialized High School, the test is a hotbed of controversy. At the forefront is the test’s enormous racial disparity: of 952 seats, only seven were offered to black students. This is down from last year, when nine black students were admitted into Stuyvesant. Numbers like these are abhorrent, especially in a public school system where 70 of the students are either black or Hispanic. At the heart of the racial disparity argument is that wealthy families spend thousands of dollars to send their children to expensive prep classes — resources that many New York families cannot afford. The NAACP filed a discrimination complaint with the Justice Department in 2012, and the investigation into that complaint is still pending. One of Mayor DeBlasio’s campaign promises was to scrap the SHSAT for a more diverse admissions system including grades, portfolios, and extracurricular activities. This looks like a campaign promise he is unlikely to fulfill, because the admissions process is enshrined in State law and the State Senate is adamant about maintaining the test as-is.

Almost all my friends, and the students at Stuyvesant for that matter, resist any changes to the SHSAT. Every year, when admissions results are released, come the calls for reforming the SHSAT test — I still remember the year when I walked past Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now protesters on my way to school. Every year students feel offense toward calls for reform, and I don’t blame them: We all believed that we earned our spots at Stuyvesant because we are smart. That belief is not delusional. I have never encountered a higher concentration of intelligent people in my life. But we irrationally treat every call for reform as an existential threat. Somehow, changing the test and acknowledging its flaws calls into question our own hard work in earning those coveted spots at Stuyvesant.

I used to think this way too — I didn’t pay for test prep, so why are protesters lumping me with those who do? But over the past few years, I’ve changed my mind. At first, I thought that the problem of test prep meant the solution was offering low-income students free test prep, until I learned that program already exists. Then I thought that the racial disparity existed because not enough black and Hispanic students were taking the test — but actual data showing that black and Hispanic students take the test in roughly equal proportion to Asian students proved me wrong. It was this last bit of data that convinced me there was something fundamentally flawed with the test: 22 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students took the test, but only four and seven percent, respectively, were offered admission.

There are truly no winners in this debate, because for all its flaws the SHSAT does admit the equally important form of economic diversity. Forty-four percent of all students in the school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, something that Cornell itself could do well to start focusing on. The students I respected the most were those who had little, but genuinely worked and studied hard to prove they were phenomenally smarter than I am. If there are any extant examples left in America where education can immediately vaunt disadvantaged students into the upper echelons of society, it is this 44 percent. In addition, most Asian students, like me, were first-generation immigrants with parents that lack English fluency: We not only pulled all-nighters and napped during classes, but we had to deal with cultural boundaries, language barriers and enormous parental expectations back home. Few people snapped only because we were all in the same boat, like a pressure cooker support group.

And as for how to actually change the SHSAT: I have no idea. DeBlasio did propose transitioning to grades and extracurricular activities, but the public high schools in NYC that already use it still struggle with diversity problems. The high school we get compared to a lot, Thomas Jefferson High School, in Virginia, uses portfolio admissions and they too struggle with racial diversity. Plus, thousands of educational institutions that use a portfolio assessment struggle with racial and economic diversity — they’re called colleges.

But I’m comfortable with not having any solutions — this is a complicated and emotional issue. What is certain, however, is that there will be little reconciliation between both sides until we all recognize that is a real flaw with the SHSAT. Whatever that flaw is, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech alums should rest assured that such a flaw does not question hard work and academic ability. We are a bunch of math and science nerds. We love numbers and worship data. We should scrutinize our alma maters’ numbers and ask whether we like the story they tell us.

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