To Make Elite Schools ‘Fair,’ City Will Punish Poor Asians

Dennis Saffran, New York Post, July 19, 2014

In 2004, 7-year-old Ting Shi arrived in New York from China, speaking almost no English. For two years, he shared a bedroom in a Chinatown apartment with his grandparents–a cook and a factory worker–and a young cousin, while his parents put in 12-hour days at a small laundromat they had purchased on the Upper East Side.

Ting mastered English and eventually set his sights on getting into Stuyvesant High School, the crown jewel of New York City’s eight “specialized high schools.”

When he was in sixth grade, he took the subway downtown from his parents’ small apartment to the bustling high school to pick up prep books for its eighth-grade entrance exam. He prepared for the test over the next two years, working through the prep books and taking classes at one of the city’s free tutoring programs. His acceptance into Stuyvesant prompted a day of celebration at the laundromat–an immigrant family’s dream beginning to come true.

Ting, now a 17-year-old senior starting at NYU in the fall, says of his parents, who never went to college: “They came here for the next generation.”

The plot against merit

New York’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant and the equally storied Bronx High School of Science, along with Brooklyn Technical High School and five smaller schools, have produced 14 Nobel laureates–more than most countries.

For more than 70 years, admission to these schools has been based upon a competitive examination of math, verbal and logical reasoning skills. In 1971, the state legislature, heading off city efforts to scrap the merit selection test as culturally biased against minorities, reaffirmed that admission to the schools be based on the competitive exam.

But now, troubled by declining black and Hispanic enrollment at the schools, opponents of the exam have resurfaced. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has filed a civil-rights complaint challenging the admissions process. A bill in Albany to eliminate the test requirement has garnered the support of Sheldon Silver, the powerful Assembly speaker.

And new Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Tech, has called for changing the admissions criteria. The mayor argues that relying solely on the test creates a “rich-get-richer” dynamic that benefits the wealthy, who can afford expensive test preparation.

As Ting’s story illustrates, however, the reality is just the opposite. It’s not affluent whites, but rather the city’s burgeoning population of Asian-American immigrants–a group that, despite its successes, remains disproportionately poor and working-class–whose children have aced the exam in overwhelming numbers.

And, ironically, the more “holistic” and subjective admissions criteria that de Blasio and the NAACP favor would be much more likely to benefit children of the city’s professional elite than African-American and Latino applicants–while penalizing lower-middle-class Asian-American kids like Ting. The result would not be a specialized high school student body that “looks like New York,” but rather one that looks more like Bill de Blasio’s upscale Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Asian-American success

There is no dispute that black and Latino enrollment at the specialized schools, while always low, has steadily declined since the 1970s.

Blacks constituted 13 percent of the student body at Stuyvesant in 1979, 5 percent in 1994 and just 1 percent the last few years, while Hispanics dropped from a high of 4 percent to 2 percent today.

Similarly, at Bronx Science, black enrollment has fallen from 12 percent in 1994 to 3 percent currently and Hispanic enrollment has leveled off, from about 10 percent to 6 percent. The figures are even more striking at the less selective Brooklyn Tech, where blacks made up 37 percent of the student body in 1994 but only 8 percent today, while Hispanic numbers plunged from about 15 percent to 8 percent.

These declining minority numbers have not been matched by a corresponding increase in whites, however. In fact, white enrollment at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech has plummeted as well, dropping from 79 percent, 81 percent and 77 percent, respectively, in 1971 to just 22 percent, 23 percent and 20 percent today.

Rather, it is New York City’s fastest-growing racial minority group, Asian-Americans, who have come to dominate these schools. Asians, while always a presence in New York, didn’t begin arriving in the city in large numbers until immigration restrictions were lifted with passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, championed by Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Since then, their proportion of the city’s population has increased from less than 1 percent to about 13 percent, and their share of the specialized school population has skyrocketed. Asian students constituted 6 percent of the enrollment at Stuyvesant in 1970 and 50 percent in 1994; they make up an incredible 73 percent of the student body this year.

The story is similar at Bronx Science, where the Asian population has exploded from 5 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 1994 to 62 percent today, and at Brooklyn Tech, where their presence increased from 6 percent to 33 percent to 61 percent.

The ‘rich’ fallacy

Asians in New York are overwhelmingly first- and second-generation; some three-quarters of the students at Stuyvesant are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

They’re hardly affluent, notwithstanding de Blasio’s implication that families who get their kids into the specialized schools are “rich.”

True, Asians nationally have the highest median income of any racial group, including whites–and in New York City, their median household income ranks second to that of whites and well ahead of blacks and Hispanics.

But Asians also have the highest poverty rate of any racial group in New York, with 29 percent living below the poverty level, compared with 26 percent of Hispanics, 23 percent of blacks and 14 percent of whites. Poor Asians lag far behind whites and are barely ahead of blacks and Latinos. Thus, the income spectrum among Asians in New York ranges from a surprisingly large number in poverty, through a hardworking lower middle class, and on to a more affluent upper middle class.

It might seem reasonable to assume–as de Blasio and others apparently do–that the Asian kids at the specialized schools come largely from families at the top of this pyramid. But this isn’t the case.

Half the students at the specialized high schools qualify for free or subsidized school lunches, including 47 percent at Stuyvesant and 48 percent at Bronx Science–figures that have increased correspondingly with Asians’ rising numbers at these schools. {snip}

Think about that: Two public high schools that, along with half their students, are officially classified as poor by the federal government rival the most exclusive prep schools in the world.

The poor students get into such schools through hard work and sacrifice–both their own and that of their parents. The students typically attend local tutoring programs, which proliferate in Asian neighborhoods, starting the summer after sixth grade and for several days a week, including weekends, during the school year prior to the test. The costs are burdensome for poor and working families, but it’s a matter of priorities.

A liberal nightmare

All this once would have been the stuff of liberal dreams: A racial minority group historically victimized by discrimination begins coming to America in greater numbers because of an immigration reform sponsored by Ted Kennedy. {snip}

To modern “progressive” elites, though, the story is intolerable, starting with the hard work. These liberal elites seem particularly troubled by the Asian-American work ethic and the difficult questions that it raises about the role of culture in group success.


In September 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint with the US Department of Education, which dispenses federal educational funding to the city, charging that use of the SHSAT [Specialized High School Admissions Test] as the sole basis for admission violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination by federal aid recipients.

The complaint does not allege that the exam intentionally discriminates against black and Hispanic students. Instead, citing statistics regarding declining black and Latino enrollment and SHSAT pass rates, the LDF bases its argument entirely on the theory of “disparate impact”–that is, that discrimination should be inferred merely from racial differences in test scores.

In the complaint and in a subsequent report released last fall to coincide with de Blasio’s election, the LDF argues for replacement of the SHSAT with a “holistic” admissions process–one that would consider “multiple measures” of academic potential, “both quantitative and qualitative,” including not only grades but also such subjective indicators as interviews, recommendations, “portfolio assessments,” “proven leadership skills” and “commitment to community service.”

Other factors could include applicants’ “backgrounds and experiences” and the “demographic profile” of their schools and neighborhoods. To the extent that a test would be allowed at all, it would merely “supplement” these other criteria. The LDF also called for guaranteed admission for valedictorians and salutatorians, and perhaps other top students, at each public middle school program–a proposal that sounds modest but would actually require a set-aside of at least 1,000 of the 3,800 seats in each class.

Subjective backfire

De Blasio suggested, for example, that a student’s extracurricular activities should be one of the selection factors. But as a past president of the Stuyvesant Parents Association noted, “the kids that have the best résumés in seventh and eighth grades have money.”

A Chinese student like Ting Shi who has to help out in his parents’ laundromat is not going on “service” trips to Nicaragua with the children in de Blasio’s affluent Park Slope neighborhood. The LDF’s suggested admissions criteria–student portfolios, leadership skills and community service–are all subject to privileged parents’ ability to buy their children the indicia of impressiveness.


Critics of the SHSAT will reply that something must be done about declining black and Hispanic enrollment at the specialized high schools. The answer, however, can never be to lower objective standards.


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