Near the end of July, New York State assemblywoman and Brooklyn Democratic Party chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn took to the Daily News op-ed page to condemn the city’s eight specialized high schools, where a student’s score on a single standardized test determines who gets in—and the student bodies are disproportionately Asian. “New York City’s public specialized high schools are coveted as an equalizing springboard to success,” Bichotte Hermelyn wrote, “but in reality, they are overwhelmingly segregated, thanks to the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) being the sole admission factor.”
Of the more than 22,000 New York City students who took the SHSAT for the 2022–23 academic year, 31 percent were Asian American, 25.8 percent were Latino, 20.7 percent were black, and 17.1 percent were white. Yet just 3.2 percent of black test-takers and 5.7 percent of Latino test-takers received offers to attend the schools, compared with 52.5 percent of Asian American test-takers and 27.8 percent of white test-takers.
The racial imbalance among enrolled students is most pronounced at the three oldest and most elite of the schools—Stuyvesant High School (Stuyvesant), Bronx High School of Science (Bronx Science), and Brooklyn Technical High School (Brooklyn Tech). For the 2021–22 academic year, Asian Americans accounted for 72 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body, 63 percent of Bronx Science’s, and 60 percent of Brooklyn Tech’s. Results from previous years tell a similar story. “I propose getting rid of the current test,” Bichotte Hermelyn wrote. “It’s time to rewrite the laws in New York City and change the paradigm to end segregation in high schools.”
The assemblywoman said nothing explicitly about Asian Americans, but many within Gotham’s Asian American community viewed her proposal as tacitly anti-Asian. One day after the Daily News op-ed, the assemblywoman’s photo, along with her comments about the selective schools, appeared on the front page of several local Chinese newspapers. “AM Bichotte resurrects anti Asian racism by using the end of AA as her excuse to attack admissions to NYC Specialized High Schools,” tweeted Yiatin Chu, founder of the New York political club Asian Wave Alliance. And several elected officials released statements backing the specialized high schools, the SHSAT, and their Asian constituents, who consider a child’s admission to one of the schools as a ticket to advancement.
Bichotte Hermelyn’s op-ed appeared in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June 29 decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard banning explicit racial preferences in college admissions (which, in effect, benefit black and Latino students and penalize Asian American students) for violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The Court’s decision, however, said nothing about the push to replace the merit-based admissions policies of selective public schools with alternatives that—while race-neutral on their face—try to tie the schools’ racial demographics to those of their surrounding districts, a practice known as “racial balancing.”
The attacks on merit schools have not been limited to New York City. Across the United States, school districts and left-wing politicians, frustrated by the low number of black and Latino students attending selective public high schools, have adopted new admissions policies aimed at racially balancing the schools’ student bodies. As with the now-banned racial preferences in college admissions, these efforts reduce the number of Asian Americans at such schools—and they will likely be the next battlefield in the war over preferences.
Nowhere has the anti-merit push been more evident than at Thomas Jefferson High School (TJ) for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, a highly selective magnet school and one of Virginia’s 19 “Academic-Year Governor’s Schools,” which serve academically gifted and talented high school students. Most of TJ’s students come from Fairfax County, but applicants from nearby Arlington, Loudon, and Prince William Counties, as well as the City of Falls Church, are also accepted.
As the Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, TJ is truly impressive. It has 13 specialized research labs, offers courses that, according to Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett’s book Exam Schools, “go well beyond the Advanced Placement standard in their respective fields” (examples include electrodynamics, microbial genomics, and machine learning), and requires seniors to “complete a major science or engineering research project, either by working in one of the science and technology research laboratories, or by working in a commercial, government, or university research lab or technical facility.” U.S. News & World Report has consistently ranked TJ as one of America’s top public high schools.
The Fairfax County School Board, a 12-member elected body, oversees TJ’s admissions policy. Before 2020, selection was entirely merit-based. To be eligible to apply, eighth-graders had to have completed or be enrolled in Algebra I, maintain a GPA of 3.0, and pay a $100 application fee, which could be waived for families with financial need. Eligible students would then take a standardized test, consisting of Quant-Q, ACT Inspire Reading, and ACT Inspire Science sections. Applicants scoring high enough on the test became “semifinalists” and advanced to the second round, where they had to submit two teacher recommendations and complete three writing prompts and a problem-solving essay. In 2019, Asian Americans made up 71.5 percent of TJ’s student population.
Then came the May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. Responding to the upheaval, the Virginia General Assembly, in its 2020 budget bill, required each Academic-Year Governor’s School to “set diversity goals for its student body and faculty and develop a plan to meet said goals in collaboration with community partners at public meetings.” The Fairfax County School Board saw this as its opportunity to remake TJ’s admissions process, hoping to balance the school’s student racial breakdown.
That December, the school board adopted a new admissions policy for TJ, jettisoning the standardized test. Under the new system, each public middle school within participating school divisions gets allocated seats in TJ’s incoming freshman class equivalent to 1.5 percent of the middle school’s eighth-grade enrollment. Prospective students within each middle school are then evaluated based on GPA; a “portrait sheet,” where they must demonstrate “graduate attributes” and “21st century skills”; a problem-solving essay; and “experience factors,” including whether they’re economically disadvantaged, an English language learner, participating in a special-education program, or currently attending an underrepresented middle school. Once these seats get filled, all remaining applicants, as well as private- and home-school students, can compete for the remaining seats using the same criteria.
Under the new policy, the number of Asian American students with offers to go to TJ plummeted. Whereas the class of 2024 (the last one admitted under the merit-based policy) is 73 percent Asian, 17.7 percent white, 3.3 percent Latino, and 1 percent black, the class of 2025 (the first using the new approach) is 54.36 percent Asian, 22.36 percent white, 11.27 percent Latino, and 7.9 percent black. Asian Americans, then, were the only racial or ethnic group to experience a drop in invitations—of nearly 20 percentage points.
This appears not to have been coincidental. After all, most Asian American students in Northern Virginia attend Carson, Kilmer, Rocky Run, or Longfellow Middle Schools, each having sent high numbers of students in the past to TJ. The new policy’s blanket limitation on how many students may get in from each middle school disproportionately penalizes students from these areas.
Further, at an October 2020 work session, in which the school board voted to eliminate TJ’s entrance exam, TJ principal Ann Bonitatibus expressed her desire for a “student body that more closely aligns with the representation in Fairfax County Public Schools” and “Northern Virginia.” Meantime, Superintendent Scott Brabrand enthused about getting rid of “the testing component that squeezed out talent and squeezed out diversity in our system.” Other Fairfax County Public Schools officials noted that the admissions test had resulted in the presence at TJ of “students who have been in Test Prep since second grade.” None of these statements mentions Asian Americans explicitly; nor does the new admissions policy. But school board member Karen Keys-Gamarra seemingly confirmed that she and her reforming peers had Asian American students in mind when she warned: “And I want to say, just as we are concerned about certain communities feeling that we are maligning them by talking about tests, we must be very careful, and we must be cognizant of how demeaning these types of comments are and that many people consider these comments to be rooted in racism. I’m not saying it’s intentional, but we need to be mindful.”
The Boston School Committee was certainly not mindful when it recently overhauled admissions for Boston’s selective public high schools, also seeking greater racial balance. Boston’s three selective public high schools—Boston Latin School (BLS), Boston Latin Academy (BLA), and the John O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science (O’Bryant)—all serve academically gifted and talented students in grades 7–12. All are ranked among the top public high schools by U.S. News & World Report.
Founded in 1635, BLS is the largest of the city’s selective public high schools and the oldest public school in the United States. It currently offers 24 advanced-placement courses and boasts an endowment of $60 million; even its alumni association has a full-time staff. Started as the nation’s first college preparatory school for girls, BLA encourages students to take classes in journalism, creative writing, and ancient Greek. And O’Bryant, a specialized high school for students interested in STEM careers, has partnerships with Boston University Medical School, Harvard Medical School, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and two world-renowned hospitals. All three schools are operated by Boston Public Schools; city residents can apply for admission in sixth or eighth grade.
Until the 2021–22 academic year, students’ admission to one of the schools was determined by their grades in English language arts and math, as well as their score on the Independent School Entrance Exam, a third-party standardized test used by independent private schools. Boston Public Schools officials averaged each applicant’s grades and assigned a value to that average before adding the applicant’s standardized test score to come up with a composite score. Students listed the three selective public high schools in order of preference, and admissions were conducted through ranked choice, until all available seats at the schools were taken.
But as in Alexandria, in late 2020, the Boston School Committee voted to overhaul the schools’ admissions process, troubled by the fact that, while blacks and Latinos constituted over 75 percent of Boston Public Schools students, they made up just 40 percent of the selective schools’ enrollees.
Citing the risks associated with Covid-19, the school committee terminated the standardized testing requirement. Applicants would now get evaluated solely based on their GPA. And only 20 percent of seats at each of the selective schools would henceforth be filled through citywide competition. Those who didn’t get an offer initially could enter a second round, in which a certain number of seats would be reserved for each Boston zip code, based on the proportion of school-aged children residing there. Competition for these seats would take place exclusively within each of the zip codes (as well as one created for homeless applicants and those in state custody). Students would be assigned seats on a ranked-choice basis, again using their GPA.
This new system had an immediate negative impact on white and Asian American enrollment at the selective schools. For fall 2021, white representation in seventh- and ninth-grade classes fell from 33 percent to 24 percent, while Asian American representation dropped from 21 percent to 16 percent.
Winning a seat from a predominantly white and Asian American neighborhood became much more challenging than winning one from a predominantly black or Latino neighborhood. The average GPA (on a 12-point scale) of students invited to BLS, BLA, or O’Bryant from a Boston zip code with a white and Asian American population of at least 55 percent ranged between 10.32 and 11.56; the average GPA of invited students from areas where the black and Latino population is at least 55 percent ranged between 9.51 and 10.67. Out of the 292 students admitted to a selective school with a GPA below 10, 210 came from one of the seven zip codes with the fewest white and Asian American students.
Once again, the racial outcome seems intentional. Boston Public Schools’ Opportunity and Achievement Gap Task Force cochair Samuel Acevedo, a member of the city’s Exam School Admissions Criteria Working Group, which had recommended the zip-code system to the school committee, stated, for example, that one of the group’s goals was “rectifying historic racial inequities afflicting exam school admissions for generations.” Another working-group member, NAACP-Boston president Tanisha Sullivan, observed that racial gaps in assessment scores and GPAs between white and Asian American students, on the one hand, and black and Hispanic kids, on the other, “played a significant role in what we will ultimately recommend.” Boston School Committee chairman Michael Loconto was even caught on a hot mic ridiculing the names of Asian American parents who had signed up to criticize the zip-code quota at a public meeting.
Boston Public Schools has since rescinded the zip-code quota; public opposition may have played a role. Nonetheless, the current admissions policy is still no longer entirely merit-based. In addition to considering an applicant’s GPA and score on a standardized test, school officials take into account the applicants’ socioeconomic tier (or geographic area), with students in lower tiers receiving preference.
Those seeking to achieve racial balance in New York City’s specialized high schools, like Assemblywoman Bichotte Hermelyn, won’t be able to do so as easily as their Fairfax County and Boston counterparts. Under New York’s 1971 Hecht-Calandra Act, admissions to the schools must be based “solely and exclusively by taking a competitive, objective, and scholastic achievement, which shall be open to each and every child in the city of New York.” Applicants must take the SHSAT, and then rank their favored schools by order of preference. Asian Americans account for just 17 percent of Gotham students, but they received 53 percent of the offers last year to the selective schools.
The Hecht-Calandra Act, though, lets each school set up a “Discovery Program” to help low-income kids get in. For a student to participate, he or she must take the SHSAT but score just below the admission cutoff; be certified by his or her middle school as disadvantaged and recommended by it as having high potential; and complete a summer preparatory program, administered by the desired specialized school. For years, each specialized school ran the Discovery Program on its own terms.
This changed in June 2018, when then-mayor Bill de Blasio and former New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza announced a plan to alter Discovery. (“I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools,” Carranza said.) Under de Blasio and Carranza’s new approach, each specialized high school had to ensure that 20 percent of its incoming class consisted of Discovery students; and only eighth-graders attending schools with an “Economic Need Index” of 60 percent or higher would be eligible.
A school’s poverty rate is determined by the percentage of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, or who receive public assistance from the New York City Human Resources Administration. Its Economic Need Index, however, is the average of its students’ “Economic Need Value.” Students get assigned a value between zero and one. Those with a value of one are eligible for public assistance from the city; have lived in temporary housing for the last four years; or speak a home language other than English and entered the city’s educational system within the last four years. Alternatively, a student’s Economic Need Value can be computed based on the percentage of families with school-aged kids in the student’s census tract with incomes below the poverty level. A student from an impoverished family attending a middle school where students on average come from higher-income families thus might not qualify for the program. De Blasio and Carranza’s Discovery policy, then, “operates to limit Discovery not to poor students, but to poor students at particular schools,” as described in a 2018 complaint from the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation.
Economic Need Index calculations for the year in which de Blasio and Carranza announced their changes to Discovery showed that students attending 11 of the 24 majority Asian American schools with eighth-grade enrollment would, under the new plan, lose eligibility, compared with just 20 of the 191 majority-black schools and just nine of the 243 majority-Latino schools. The de Blasio–Carranza Discovery Program—which has continued under Mayor Eric Adams—disproportionately harms Asian American kids.
These new policies will be front and center in the ongoing debate over the consideration of race in admissions. In 2007’s Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court outlawed the use of race as a factor in K–12 admissions, just as it did, this past June, in the context of higher-education admissions. The justices have yet to consider, however, supposedly race-neutral admissions policies that, in effect, have a disproportionate effect on a particular racial or ethnic group—here, Asian Americans.
They might soon have the chance. Coalition for TJ—a grassroots organization made up primarily of Asian American parents in Northern Virginia—filed suit against the Fairfax County School Board in 2021 for its overhaul of TJ’s merit-based admissions. The district court, in finding that “the discussion of TJ admissions changes was infected with talk of racial balancing from its inception,” ruled in favor of the coalition; but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, contending that the school board did not act with “an impermissible racial purpose” and that TJ’s new admissions policy does not penalize Asian Americans because—at 54 percent—they still make up a majority of the school’s student body.
In August, Coalition for TJ appealed the Fourth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court. Represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, the group argued in its petition for certiorari that “the Fourth Circuit’s ruling merits this Court’s review because it presents a question of national importance that the Court has yet to answer directly.” Coming “on the heels of last term’s decision curtailing racial discrimination in higher education admissions,” Coalition for TJ noted, “this is one of several ongoing challenges to competitive K–12 admissions criteria that seek to accomplish a racial objective ‘indirectly’ because it ‘cannot be done directly.’ ” The group also pointed out that the Fourth Circuit’s ruling seemingly goes against the Court’s understanding of equal protection, as it suggests that selective K–12 schools and institutions of higher education may use racial proxies, so long as Asian American enrollment does not shrink too much.
Asian American parent and civil rights groups have challenged the Boston School Committee’s zip-code quota and New York City’s Discovery Program in court, as well. The Roberts Court took one step in curbing anti-Asian discrimination in education last June. Will it take another?
Top Photo: After the death of George Floyd in May 2020, Virginia required specialized high schools to diversify their student bodies. The Fairfax Board of Education abandoned standardized tests for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in favor of a subjective process that included seeking students from “underrepresented” schools. (MANUEL BALCE CENETA/AP PHOTO)