Every Stuyvesant student remembers the day they took the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT).
I was thirteen, a student at the Ramaz Middle School in Manhattan. I was taking the test on a Sunday due to religious observance. My alarm rang at 6:00 AM. I washed my face, said my morning prayer and ate a hearty breakfast. This would be the most important test I'd ever taken -- it would determine where I would be spending my next four years.
As I took the train down to Stuyvesant, where I'd be taking the exam, I opened up my SHSAT prep book. A little extra studying couldn't hurt, I figured, especially given that I hadn't enrolled in any of the expensive summer prep courses. As I walked down Chambers Street for the first time, my nose deep in my book, I prepared mentally for the exam.
I remember the faces of the students who welcomed me into the building and I even remember who my proctor for the exam was (Ms. Garber, a health teacher). Hours later, I submitted the multiple choice scantron that would give me the opportunity to attend my school of choice.
Four years later, as I prepare to graduate from Stuyvesant High School, the SHSAT has re-entered my consciousness. The state legislature is considering abolishing the exam in favor of a more holistic admissions process that it hopes will increase African American and Hispanic admissions, which are notoriously low (only "11 percent of offers to specialized schools went to black and Hispanic students, even though they represent nearly 70 percent of the city's public school student population" reports Chalkbeat).
Responses to the proposed bill are mixed.
Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill De Blasio have endorsed the legislation arguing that "a student is more than an exam." Alumni of the prestigious specialized high schools, however, oppose the movement to abolish the SHSAT. "The advantage of using the test is that it eliminates favoritism and offers every child a simple way to get in," said Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.
I polled the Stuyvesant student body to better understand their opinions. Of those students that responded to the poll, 79/82 seniors (96 percent), 61/65 juniors (94 percent) and 80/80 sophomores (100 percent) opposed the bill to abolish the SHSAT. While those students aren't entirely representative of the student body, the weight of their preference is overwhelming.
"A test is not racist, a test is not sexist, a test is not a homophobe; a test gives every individual an equal opportunity. The most fair solution is the one the presents equal opportunity with zero bias" said senior Samuel Matthew.
Other students note that Stuyvesant is, in fact, filled with minority students -- just not the minorities that are lobbying the legislature; the school is predominantly Asian and, decades ago, was predominantly Jewish.
I agree with the Mayor and Chancellor that our specialized high schools need more diversity. Along with alumni, teachers, students and parents, I was shocked by the Stuyvesant student body's lack of sensitivity towards racial issues this spring when the junior class put on a performance in which their only male black actor was a slave and their only female black actress was a mime. I agree with state legislators that the lack of minority representation is unfair; many low-income minority students lack the resources for test prep. Finally, I agree that having so few minorities at specialized high schools turns those minority students who do attend into representatives of their race, which is unhealthy.
Nonetheless, I oppose the abolishment of the SHSAT for three main reasons.
1) Stuyvesant's culture is one where merit rules. Connections, money and power can't buy you a spot in the school. Even my neighbor, the daughter of SUNY's Vice Chancellor, had to test in. Placement in AP classes, recommendations and membership in the school's honors society are also based on merit. As a result, students learn that the best way to get ahead is through hard work -- even if that means long nights and coffee in the morning. Abolishing the test would cause a substantial change to this culture.
2) Specialized high schools promote social mobility and allow immigrants to climb the "social ladder" and achieve the American dream. When European Jews were immigrating to the United States in the mid-late 1900's, they made up the majority of each class. Today, students from Chinese, Korean, Indian and Pakistani immigrant families fill Stuyvesant classes. Abolishing the SHSAT would displace deserving, hard working students in order to fill diversity quotas.
3) Most importantly, abolishing the SHSAT would have adverse effects on racism. Many students would call into question the legitimacy of minority student's admissions -- resulting in what political scientists call otherization. "He was only accepted because of his race" students would argue, mistakingly.
Diversity in specialized high schools is certainly an issue that needs to be tackled. Stuyvesant alumnus Adam Schorin launched a tutoring non-profit to help minority students prepare for the SHSAT a few years ago. Kweller Prep Tutoring and other tutoring companies provide scholarships to minorities to help them place into the school. Angel Colon, SPARK Coordinator at Stuyvesant, runs diversity initiatives all throughout the year. Clearly these efforts are not sufficient. We need to step up our efforts to provide opportunities to minority students and work on promoting initiatives within the school to promote more sensitivity regarding racial issues.
We should not, however, scrap the way our specialized high schools function. It seems ironic, almost absurd, that the city and state are focusing on reforming schools famous for nobel prize laureates rather than focusing their attention on the rest of the failing public school system.