City Journal

Dennis Saffran
The Plot Against Merit
Seeking racial balance, liberal advocates want to water down admissions standards at New York’s elite high schools.
Summer 2014
FRANK FRANKLIN II/ AP PHOTO
Stuyvesant High School, the crown jewel of New York City’s eight “specialized high schools,” has produced four Nobel Prize winners.

In 2004, seven-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.”

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. (See “How Gotham’s Elite High Schools Escaped the Leveler’s Ax,” Spring 1999.) 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 New York City 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.

Established in 1904 as “a manual training school for boys,” Stuyvesant stressed engineering and other applied sciences. Starting in 1919, the school restricted admissions, based on academic achievement, and it implemented a competitive entrance examination in 1929. Brooklyn Tech was founded in 1922 to prepare boys for engineering or other technical careers, and Bronx Science, conceived as a science and math school for boys, followed in 1938. With assistance from Columbia University, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant devised a common entrance exam; Brooklyn Tech later adopted it. All three schools had gone coed by 1970. Five smaller schools, now comprising 20 percent of the specialized-school population, were added during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Admission to these schools is based upon the same exam.

In the early years, Bronx Science, which focused on pure rather than applied science, was the most prestigious of the original three schools. Its graduates have won eight Nobel Prizes, more than any other secondary school in the world, as well as six Pulitzer Prizes, and it also leads all schools in Intel (formerly Westinghouse) Science Talent Competition winners. Over the last two decades, however—especially since its 1992 move from a ramshackle old building on 15th Street to a gleaming new waterfront facility near the financial district—Stuyvesant has overtaken Bronx Science as the most exclusive and coveted of the specialized schools. Stuyvesant graduates have won four Nobels (tied for second in the world); and over the last 16 years, it has led the country in Intel Competition winners. Stuyvesant and Bronx Science have traditionally provided a springboard to success for talented but poor kids, primarily Jews at first, but later including African-Americans as well. Among the notable Jewish graduates (in addition to 11 of the schools’ 12 Nobel laureates) are sociologist Daniel Bell (Stuyvesant ’35), teachers’ union leader Albert Shanker (Stuyvesant ’46), political commentator and Pulitzer Prize winner William Safire and literary critic Harold Bloom (both Bronx Science ’47), and novelist E. L. Doctorow (Bronx Science ’48). Prominent black graduates include political scientist Thomas Sowell (Stuyvesant ’48), former Harvard Medical School dean Alvin Poussaint (Stuyvesant ’52), radical activist Stokely Carmichael (Bronx Science ’60), astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (Bronx Science ’76), and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (Stuyvesant ’69).

The social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s led to attacks on the specialized high schools and on the entrance exam as racially biased and exclusionary. In 1971, the board of Community School District 3, then a predominantly black and Puerto Rican district on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, charged that Bronx Science was, as characterized by the New York Times, “a privileged educational center for children of the white middle class because ‘culturally’ oriented examinations worked to ‘screen out’ black and Puerto Rican students.” Threatening a lawsuit, the board criticized the exam for being “heavily loaded with ‘intelligence test’ approaches” and proposed that students should instead be admitted solely based on recommendations. Mayor John V. Lindsay, an affluent Upper East Side liberal Republican-turned-Democrat who sent his children to exclusive private schools, moved quickly to placate District 3. Lindsay’s leftish schools chancellor, Harvey Scribner, appointed a committee to study the specialized schools’ admissions policy, saying that there was “a question as to the extent any test of academic achievement tends to be culturally biased.”

Scribner’s apparent receptiveness to ending the exam sparked a strong reaction from specialized school alumni, parents, and faculty, and led to the introduction of a bill in Albany to mandate its continued use. Sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Burton G. Hecht and Republican Senator John D. Calandra, both of the Bronx, the bill required that admission to the specialized schools—and any others that the city might create in the future—continue to be based “solely and exclusively” on “a competitive, objective and scholastic achievement examination.” The bill passed both houses with strong bipartisan support in May 1971 and was signed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Criticism of the specialized schools and the admissions test subsided in the four decades following the enactment of the Hecht-Calandra Law. A notable exception was a 1997 report by the radical Acorn group assailing racial imbalance at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. But strikingly, the Acorn report focused less on the entrance exam and merit selection than on improved preparation of minority students, and it called for “suspension” of the exam only “until the . . . students of each middle school have had access to curricula and instruction that would prepare them for this test.” In a related report, Acorn made this focus more explicit: “The question is not whether the entrance exam is unfair. The question is why students who attend public elementary and middle schools for eight or nine years are so unprepared to do well when they take it.”

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 Senator 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.

Asians now make up 60 percent of enrollment throughout the specialized schools, though they constitute only 15 percent of New York’s public school population. Blacks and Latinos, by contrast, make up 13 percent of the specialized school population but 70 percent of the overall public school enrollment, while whites account for 24 percent of specialized school enrollment and 14 percent of the overall public school population. Passage rates for the exam reflect Asian dominance. Last year, Asians accounted for 30 percent of test takers but 53 percent of admissions offers, whites 17 percent of test takers and 26 percent of offers, and blacks and Latinos 46 percent of test takers but only 12 percent of offers. Looked at another way, 33 percent of Asian test takers and 28 percent of whites, but only 5 percent of blacks and Latinos, gained admission.

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. Based upon these figures, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science (as well as four of the other six specialized schools) are eligible for federal Title I funding, given to schools with large numbers of low-income students. 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. (See “Brooklyn’s Chinese Pioneers,” Spring 2014.) As Chinese parent leader Stanley Ng noted in an NPR story last year: “Even the lowest-paid immigrants scrape up enough money for tutoring, because those high schools are seen as the ticket to a better life” for their children. Thus, one immigrant family featured in the NPR story had spent $5,000 per year, of the parents’ combined $26,000 income as garment workers, to send their three sons to tutoring. Their oldest boy, now a student at Stuyvesant, said of his mother, who did not speak English and, like her husband, did not finish high school in China: “Basically, she just worked every day . . . and saved up the money.”

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. Though many in the group remain in poverty, they take advantage of free public schools established by progressive New York City governments. By dint of their own hard work, they earn admission in increasing numbers to merit-based schools that offer smart working-class kids the kind of education once available only at Andover or Choate.

To modern “progressive” elites, though, the story is intolerable, starting with the hard work. As Charles Murray has observed, while affluent liberals themselves tend to work hard, they seem embarrassed by their own lifestyles and refuse to preach what they practice in an age that frowns on anything bourgeois, self-denying, or judgmental. 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. While the advancement of Asian students has come overwhelmingly at the expense of more affluent whites, it has also had an undeniable impact on black and Latino students, whose foothold at these schools, small to begin with, has all but vanished.

Alarm at this development has triggered a new wave of assaults upon the entrance exam—now known as the Specialized High School Admissions Test (“SHSAT”)—and the Hecht-Calandra Law that mandates its use. In September 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, which dispenses federal educational funding to the city, charging that use of the SHSAT 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 Mayor 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. Breaking with Acorn’s focus in its 1997 report on test preparation, the LDF declared that “more test prep is not the answer” and quoted the president of another civil rights group, who said that “encouraging students to spend weeks and months furiously studying . . . is wrongheaded and clearly hasn’t worked.”

The Department of Education has not yet acted on the complaint, though it remains to be seen whether this represents bureaucratic lethargy or a political strategy to wait and see if the state legislature will repeal the test requirement. Bills to do so were introduced in the legislature in 2012 but went nowhere at first. However, during last fall’s mayoral campaign, de Blasio came out for replacement of the SHSAT with a multiple-factors process. As de Blasio’s election became increasingly certain, Speaker Silver climbed aboard the repeal bandwagon. And in the closing days of the legislative session in June, a new bill to replace the test with “multiple measures of student merit” was introduced with much fanfare and the backing of the powerful United Federation of Teachers (a leading supporter of the original Hecht-Calandra bill in 1971). The measures identified in the bill did include some sort of test, as well as grades, but also such soft criteria as attendance and any other factors chosen by the city Board of Education. While the bill did not pass this year, when the legislators are up for reelection, a renewed push is likely in 2015.

Such subjective admissions criteria would be likelier to favor the kids of New York’s professional class than children from less affluent backgrounds. 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.

Ironically, eliminating the SHSAT would magnify the role of what progressives call “unconscious bias”—the idea that we have a preference for those who look like us and share our backgrounds. Subjective evaluation measures like interviews and portfolio reviews are much more susceptible to such bias than is an objective examination. Evaluators are inherently predisposed toward applicants who mirror their own lifestyles and values—which, for the teachers and edu¬crats who would be doing the evaluating under a “holistic” process, are generally those of a professional elite. The upper-middle-class applicant who volunteers at the food co-op or the AIDS walk and who manifests an air of self-confident irony will have a leg up over the quiet immigrant kid who works hard and studies. Sure, the decision makers will do their best to admit a few more black and Latino kids (especially those from the same upper-middle-class backgrounds), but the primary beneficiaries will be affluent white students who didn’t study hard enough to perform really well on the test but seem more “well-rounded” than those who did. As always, the losers in this top-bottom squeeze will be the lower middle and working classes. Among the applicant pool for the specialized high schools, that means Asians.

Comparing the specialized schools with other selective city high schools that don’t use the SHSAT bears this out. These “screened” high schools are, to varying degrees, more selective than regular neighborhood high schools; they choose students using the multiple criteria supported by SHSAT critics. A comparison of the eight most selective screened schools with the eight specialized schools shows that the screened schools, while more heavily black and Latino, are also considerably whiter and more affluent—and considerably less Asian. Remember that the specialized schools are 13 percent black and Hispanic, 24 percent white, and 60 percent Asian. The top screened schools are 27 percent black and Hispanic, 46 percent white, and only 26 percent Asian. And while 50 percent of the students at the specialized schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, only 37 percent of the students at the top screened schools do.

Subjective selection criteria also inevitably favor the affluent and connected—as a comptroller’s audit of the screened-school admissions process revealed. The study found that most of the schools examined did not follow their stated selection criteria and could not explain the criteria that they actually did use. SHSAT opponents argue that elite colleges use a subjective admissions process rather than relying on a single test. But strong evidence exists suggesting that this process results in “Asian quotas” at the top colleges, reminiscent of those once imposed on Jews. As Northwestern’s Asian-American studies director put it in a 2012 New York Times op-ed, after noting that whites were three times as likely as Asians with the same scores to be admitted to elite colleges: “Sound familiar? In the 1920s, as high-achieving Jews began to compete with WASP prep schoolers, Ivy League schools started asking about family background and sought vague qualities like ‘character’ . . . and ‘leadership’ to cap Jewish enrollment.”

There is also a big difference between evaluating 17-year-old college applicants and 13-year-old high school applicants. The younger candidates have had far less opportunity to distinguish themselves on such vague qualities as “character” and “leadership.” A selection process based on these intangibles can easily fall prey to arbitrariness, prejudice, and parental gamesmanship.

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. Doing so hurts everyone, including minority students. For all its other faults, Acorn was on the right track in 1997 when it wrote that the “question is not whether the entrance exam is unfair” but why minority students in the city school system “are so unprepared to take it.” The LDF and other progressive advocates have gone off course when they declare that “more test prep is not the answer” and dismiss spending long hours “furiously studying” as “wrongheaded” and futile. Adopting this cynical approach would do no favors for black and Latino children, while opening the door to discrimination against Asian kids like Ting. It is not the specialized schools’ emphasis on merit, but rather the advocates’ defeatist worldview that is truly—and tragically—wrongheaded.

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