Asian Students and NYC Exam Schools

with Wai Wah Chin

New York City’s exam high schools are, in many ways, the crown jewels of the city’s public education system. They’re prestigious, rigorous, and STEM-focused. And, importantly, admission to them is determined by student performance on a single test. They’re meritocratic engines that allow smart, hard-working kids to get a kind of education that would be otherwise inaccessible to many of them.

They also tend to have high concentrations of Asian American students, sometimes over 50%. My guest Wai Wah Chin, Charter President of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, thinks this accounts for recent efforts by the mayor, the schools chancellor, and others to change admissions standards. According to Wai Wah, this attempt to make these schools “look more like the city” by admitting more black and Latino students entails discriminating against Asian American students who have earned their spot by virtue of their test performance.

This is a controversial issue, and it’s not confined to New York. Below, Wai Wah outlines why exam schools are so important, and why she is fighting to preserve a model educational program.

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GLENN LOURY: Now we have actually collaborated on something. I should mention this right at the outset. The Pacific Legal Foundation produced and Rob Montz the filmmaker oversaw the production of Dream Factories, I believe is what the documentary is called, which is an investigation of the controversy in New York City about the specialized exam admissions high schools—Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Tech—in which you, that controversy, have been very actively involved. Maybe we could start by you telling us a little bit about the controversy and about your role in it and where things are standing now on that set of issues in New York City.

WAI WAH CHIN: Thank you, Glenn. It was great to be with you in Dream Factories. We, of course, didn't meet at that time because the shooting of the film happens quite separately in different pieces. But I think it captured a lot of the emotions of a very important topic. And the important topic is about excellence in our schools, meritocracy, and also the anti-Asian discrimination that's happening in the schools here in New York, as well as in many other areas in education across this country.

The specialized high schools in New York, there are three, as you named them, the most famous and the oldest ones being Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. Those are the top specialized high schools. There are five other ones, actually, that are part of this too. But those are the oldest ones and the most famous ones. Those three schools generated 14 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences. That's just an incredible number. You don't have that anywhere in the world. There are countries that don't even get that. And in fact, Bronx Science is unequal in the science area for the number of Nobel Prize winners. They are the tops in all the areas.

But you know, this is absolutely amazing for any high school, not in the country, in the entire world. These are basically also thought [of] as STEM schools. It's not for everybody. It's not meant to be for your dancers and your performers that may want to also get a great education. There are different options.

So we have a system where the kids are selected by one test only. That's it. So they don't look at your race, they don't look at your economic status, what your parents do, what their professions are, what ethnicity, what country you are from, what religion, what gender. Everything doesn't count for this, except one test. It's an academic test. It's objective. So you have to do the verbal part and the math part, and that's basically it. You come in, you take it once, and if you don't get in, you do have an opportunity the next year to take it. But it's basically one test. So you could have been playing hooky, not going to school at all, and you can also be doing pretty poorly in your middle school with grades that are not top, but if you can perform well in this one test, then you are allowed to get in.

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Now, this has the wonderful outcome of classes, I should say, that have obviously worked very well. So if you can have a system that has generated so many top students—and it's not just the Nobel Prize. It's really also many other prizes that they get: MacArthur [Fellowships], Turing [Awards]. And so many at the kids level: Intel prizes for a lot of the kids over the years. This is not to be just discarded.

But what happened in New York is that you had people from the very top—you had the mayor, the schools chancellor—saying that they were schools that didn't look like the city. You know, what are we, chopped liver? I mean, this just doesn't make sense. This is not only senseless, it is outrageous to disregard all of the people who form these wonderful schools. You can't go and say that no one group owns the schools, which is what the chancellor said. It was the mayor who said that these schools don't look like us. To talk about the diversity, we saw in 2018 when the mayor and chancellor announced that they were going to change the schools, which are governed by state law, by the way. The Hecht-Calandra law governs them to keep them based on just the admissions by the test. You cannot just change the schools without trying to change it at the state level, but they announced that they were going to pursue that. And that was creating a lot of problems.

Let me interrupt just for a minute, only because there are so many different issues at play. And I want to just try to keep some structure. We have specialized exam-based admission schools in New York City. The outcome of the exam process has yielded an ethnically unequal representation of different groups in the city's population in these schools, with blacks and Latinos being underrepresented and with Asians being “overrepresented”. So a political controversy has broken out about this disparity of representation, which has resulted, has it, in the elimination of the use of this single exam, which has for decades been the basis of gaining admissions to these schools.

Am I correct, first of all, in describing the lay of the land? Has the use of the exam, in fact, been eliminated for the specialized high schools?

No, not yet. But it's under attack. It's under attack because they couldn't change it immediately on that level because—this is where it's important to talk about also engagement by parents, engagement by interested parties, which is not just parents of kids that are going to apply, but also with the concept of what this means. This means that we are trying to destroy one meritocratic avenue to getting into the schools. But the test is still there because there was pushback. We went to Albany. We had to go and talk to a lot of legislators. We had to make sure that that the law hadn't changed.

But there was a backdoor avenue to changing the admissions. There was another program that's called Discovery, where it was a small, small amount. You would have something like 3% of the kids who would just miss the cutoff for admissions by the test. And what you do is you try to get ones who didn't make it, but they are disadvantaged in some way, so usually it's economic disadvantage. And what they did was they redesigned it here in New York City and also increased the numbers, so that it would be 20%. 20 is of course an extremely high number. That means one out of five kids did not really make the test in the usual way.

They were close to the cutoff in order to qualify for the Discovery program.

Well, they are close or not close, you see. Each school has different cutoff numbers. So some of the top schools will have such a high cutoff number. Like Stuyvesant's cutoff number is going to be higher than the top number of some of the weaker schools. So you have an extraordinary gap already between the top and the bottom. But when you're picking kids from the bottom of the bottom, you get very odd distortions. You could take some ones who missed a bottom one, and then that they get placed in one of the higher schools. So it becomes not quite right. It's a mismatch. It's not right for some of the kids who might have otherwise gotten in to the top schools.

You know, you have to remember, it's 20% of your seats. One out of five seats that are going to go to someone else that might not [have been] put in. And then you're also trading off kids, right? Because how do you define these disadvantaged kids? They cherrypick and move the definition around. What they were trying to engineer was to get certain schools where you had very few Asians.

And so, when you talk about Asians being an issue, too many Asians or not, I want to go back to the words that you used, which were “underrepresented” and “overrepresented”. I don't like those terms because we're not representing anything, okay? When a kid comes in, he's there for himself. So when a Bangladeshi kid gets into Stuyvesant, he's not representing all of the Bangladeshi people in New York. He's representing himself. He's going to go and do well for himself. Of course, it's great if he could do things back for his family and those of his ethnic roots, but we are judging him not by his representational group. And so to say that one person is underrepresented, to say that somebody is overrepresented, that's pretty offensive to the Asians, actually. You know, to say that they're an overrepresented group. I think you could say that they're not proportional to the numbers in the population. But not to be proportional, it's not the same as to say that you're underrepresented.

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