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Ruzan Sarwar Headshot

The Racial Dynamics of Standardized Tests

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New York City originally had three specialized high schools that are now the crown jewels of the state's public school system: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. They are notoriously competitive and require rigorous admissions tests to get in. A good friend of mine recently posted an article about standardized admissions tests that focused on the racial breakdown of admitted students. This particular article, published in the New York Times, spotlights the specialized test for New York's crown jewels. The admitted students were predominantly Asian. Race, apparently, caused quite the controversy.

While reading the piece, I got frustrated. I was inordinately bothered by a comment made in the article by Melissa Santana, a legal secretary, which read as follows, "You shouldn't have to prep Sunday to Sunday, to get into a good high school." My response? Yes, yes you should. Oftentimes, critics of the standardized exams are quick to scapegoat racial make-up and socioeconomic status as reasons for success or lack thereof. I disagree. This is a question about work ethic and sacrifice, not race or finances. By pinpointing race, critics like the NAACP are disenfranchising the very minorities they are attempting to empower instead of implementing proactive programs to better performance in their communities of interest.

If critics of standardized tests think it's lack of finances or lack of access to resources that prevents certain races from performing to the stated benchmarks, I want to put an end to that delusion. More often than not, immigrant families of Asian descent pour their blood, sweat, tears, and hard-earned meager wages into their children in the hopes that, through a world-class education, they will be able to rise up the ranks and become successful in the U.S.

I am from a Bangladeshi family. I am Asian. My family emphasizes academics and success. My parents have sacrificed and provided for me well beyond their means to ensure that my education was put first. And, just like innumerable children of Asian families, they have instilled that same commitment to academic success in me. I was willing to sacrifice my weekends to attend classes held by my underprivileged public school district, willing to travel the 45 minutes by bus to ensure that I had some awareness of what this test would be like. I pored over the exam prep books we were given so that I could have the best shot possible at getting into one of these three schools. I sacrificed, and I studied. The work paid off; I went to Stuyvesant, and I am proud of it. But, my story is not unique. Thousands upon thousands of kids have similar backgrounds. The New York Times article makes that abundantly clear. Why, then, should an Asian family's ethnic make-up, dynamics, and cultural commitment to academic excellence be punished?

Race is not an excuse. I am not a white, upper middle class American. I was not exposed to sailing and rowing and other practices commonly utilized as cultural context for the reading comprehension portion of the specialized tests. I don't usually tend to agree with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but in this case, he has a point. Life is not fair. A strong work ethic will serve you well, and things do not get easier after high school, they just get harder. Life will not get easier because a student, regardless of race or financial standing, was allowed unmitigated access to a stellar high school. Getting into the school is just the start. If a student does not have the drive and dedication to study for the entrance exam, what makes them think they'll succeed AT that high school? Or later in life, for that matter? What happens when college rolls around? Or boards and licensing exams? Parents who believe that their children shouldn't have to study on the weekends for important exams need to rethink their ideas of how to achieve success.