Rong Xiaoqing, City Journal, April 4, 2021
On February 26, when former New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza announced his resignation, the Asian-American parent groups who had been calling for his ouster for more than 18 months were wary celebrants. Carranza’s departure was a measure of vindication for these parents, who want the city to retain its current selective admissions systems for gifted children and for teenagers seeking entry into top public high schools. Carranza was determined to reduce what he called segregation in city schools and to create more opportunities for black and Hispanic students—an effort, the parents understood, that would come at the expense of Asian-American students who worked hard to do well under the current system. Even before the surge in attacks against Asians in the past year, the education issue had made many feel victimized by American society. But now that Carranza is gone, they aren’t popping champagne corks: New York City mayor Bill de Blasio still opposes the current admissions system, and his handpicked replacement, Meisha Ross Porter, is committed to keeping the issue on the front-burner. Next January, a new mayor will choose Porter’s successor.
The fundamental problem: under the current exam-based standards, white and Asian students perform well enough to earn the vast majority of spots in gifted-and-talented programs, and an even greater share in top high schools, yet 70 percent of the roughly 1 million children across the system’s 1,800 schools are black or Hispanic. Progressives say that these disparities amount to segregation and vow to ameliorate them. Many Asian parents, often of Chinese descent, say that abandoning the standardized-testing system will penalize Asian families, often poor, who have dedicated their limited resources to ensuring that their children can take advantage of every opportunity. De Blasio is unlikely to resolve the issue as his term expires, and his successor’s stance is anyone’s guess. But regardless of what happens over the next several months, the fight over who receives the best educational opportunities in the city—and why—isn’t going away.
Asian-American parents began mobilizing as a political force in June 2018, when de Blasio released a proposal to scrap the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), an exam that tests verbal and mathematical ability and determines admissions to a special class of public high schools. As the issue persisted, so did the advocacy. Parents have formed activist groups and showed up en masse to Department of Education events; at forums held by John Liu, the state senator who heads the committee on city education; and, once lockdowns were imposed, on public Zoom calls. They have also signed on as plaintiffs to two ongoing lawsuits against the city.
Their objection is straightforward. The mayor’s proposal to reform specialized high schools would phase out the SHSAT and replace it with a system that admits students on various factors, including how well they perform on state assessments and where they rank in their own middle schools. According to an analysis by the New York City Independent Budget Office, the plan would keep the proportion of white students the same, boost the share of black and Hispanic students to 46 percent from its current 10 percent, and halve the percentage of Asian students, to 31 percent.
In opposing this proposal, the parents have become an emerging power in the city’s political scene, putting future city administrations on notice that they will fight back against any attempt to reduce opportunities for their kids. De Blasio postponed his plan and apologized in November to the Asian community, saying that he and Carranza “did not articulate well enough” the proposed reforms. The parents say that Carranza’s departure—officially for personal reasons but following a series of disagreements with the mayor—could be another sign that the city is softening its stance. A number of mayoral candidates had already committed to firing Carranza, partly under pressure from the Asian groups. “We helped move the needle,” says Chien Kwok, a parent activist.
But the victory could be short-lived as the debate shifts. What started as a fight over the SHSAT has become a broader struggle over segregation and diversity in public schools, implicating essentially any selective program in the city education system that uses tests for admissions. With the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic as backdrops, anti-test forces—pointing to racial disparities in results and logistical difficulties in administration—have gathered strength.
The dramatic reduction in in-person schooling is making it difficult to use tests or other performance-based criteria for admissions, at least for now. About 200 city middle schools that had used grades and attendance as admissions criteria will instead use a lottery this year. The gifted-and-talented (G&T) exam, the sole criterion to select children as young as four for enrichment programs, will not be administered this year after the city’s Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) voted in January to terminate a contract with the company that offers it. Instead, gifted programs will admit students based on teacher recommendations and a lottery.
At the same time, activists and officials are singling out schools over their racial composition. Consider Hunter College High School, an elite school that admits students based on a single test. In June 2020, a group of Hunter students demanded that the school change its system. Then, in January, 38 city and state elected officials—including the city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams—sent letters to the leaders of the City University of New York (CUNY) and Hunter College, who have authority over the high school’s admissions policy, urging them to drop the entrance test and replace it with an “alternative, pro-diversity” system. At a city council hearing on February 23, some council members threatened to cut the budget of both institutions if they didn’t oblige.
The debate raises issues of both race and class. Aside from the racial disparities, some of these schools and gifted programs do not serve poorer parts of the community: only 9 percent of students at Hunter High, for example, come from low-income families. Yet top specialized high schools range from 42 percent to 59 percent low-income students, underscoring the extent to which the current admissions system can be an engine of social mobility for poorer (often Asian) families.
To the few black and Hispanic students receiving coveted spots in top schools, the environment can be distressing. In a recent Zoom meeting, Abigail Ramirez, a junior at Hunter High, said that she feels isolated as one of the few low-income Hispanic students at the school. Ramirez noted the embarrassment of seeking fee waivers and not being able to participate in ski trips, discussed the high pressure to excel, and said that she missed the middle school she once attended, which reflected the community in which she lives. “Every time I didn’t get an A or didn’t do that well on a test, I feel I didn’t deserve to be here,” she said. At the PEP meeting in January, which decided the fate of the G&T exam, Tajh Sutton, a member of the Community Education Councils (CEC), recalled her own experience of being “criminalized” and “tokenized” when she was a black student at the specialized Brooklyn Technical High School. Without systematic change, she said, “white supremacy” would continue to reign in the city’s public schools.
To many Asian parents, however, the fight is not about diversity but about retaining a merit-based system that rewards hard work—a system that, in their eyes, reflects the American dream. “I am not against admission reforms, but it has to be for improving students’ academic performance rather than reaching a racial balance,” says Ling Fei, a parent activist and WeChat blogger who came to the U.S. in 2000 to attend graduate school. “Even when I was in China, I was enchanted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a nation where people are not ‘judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’ But now what they are doing is the opposite.”
Simply put, these parents don’t believe that the city’s measures of fairness and equity recognize their sacrifices. “The mayor thinks there are too many Asians in the specialized high schools, but he never asked why there are so many Asians,” says blogger Ling Fei.
Without much understanding of American racial politics, new Asian immigrants defending merit-based admissions can find themselves vulnerable. Critics have charged that their traditional reverence for meritocracy renders them pawns, used by whites to defend their privilege.
Of course, Asian Americans are far from monolithic. Sometimes the fiercest opposition they face is within their own households, from their American-educated, second-generation children. “When you look at critical race theory, you can see that Asian Americans have always been used as a wedge,” says Vanessa Leung, favorably citing the movement that advocates its version of social justice on racial, legal, and political issues. Leung, chairwoman of the PEP, joined the majority in voting to jettison the G&T test. “We cannot allow the system to sometimes use Asian Americans as a model, and other times vilify us,” she says.
The use of critical race theory, or CRT, by those seeking to abolish testing has added to the debate’s intensity. CACAGNY, which has co-hosted seven forums for city council candidates, issued a statement calling CRT a “hateful fraud” and a “common source of anti-Asian racism.” Phil Wong, the president of the group and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the SHSAT proposal, compares CRT with the darkest periods of recent Chinese history: “China’s Mao used to call the tools he adopted to push forward his Communist agenda the ‘three red flags,’” he says. “I think the CRT sounds like one of the Communist ‘red flags.’”