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Getting In: Inside the High Stakes World of New York’s Specialized Schools

By Kyung B. Yoon
Asian American Life, Correspondent


15-year old Inri Gonzalez is a sophomore at the prestigious Styuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan of New York City. The school is less than 10 miles from his home on  West 155th Street in Washington Heights, but he says it’s a world away from the low income neighborhood where he has grown up.


“It’s changed my life,” Inri says, “ the difference between me getting into that school and going to a school in this  neighborhood, it makes a huge difference”.


Each year, about 30,000 eighth and ninth graders take the specialized high schools admissions test in the hopes of nabbing a seat at one of the 8 elite public high schools in New York City including the top three — Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant. The stakes are high.


Admission is based solely on how the student score on the 2.5 hour test, and only about one in six will be offered a spot. Many students spend months, even years, prepping for the test.


Inri’s mother says her son was able to get into a free test prep program for low income students. She sees the chance to go to a high school like Stuyvesant, where 25 percent of the graduates go onto to Ivy League or comparable colleges, to be a life-changing opportunity for Inri.


“Especially when you are coming from a minority community, you are an immigrant, you are poor,” Ana Gonzalez says, “and as a mother I want my kid to have success in this country and my kids to have the opportunity I didn’t have.”


But for Black and Hispanic students, the odds are not good.  Even though they constitute 70-percent of public school students, only 5 percent of students admitted to the specialized high schools are Black and 7 percents are Hispanic.


The testing process has come under fire from many critics, including New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who say the system favors those who can afford expensive test-prep. But the demographic data tell another story— it’s not the affluent White students, but Asian Americans, many of them low-income immigrants, who are acing the test. At Stuyvesant, Asian American students make up 72 percent of the school.


The complexities of race, equity and educational opportunities prompted filmmaker Curtis Chin to explore these issues in his new documentary, Tested.   The film follows a diverse group of eighth graders as they prepare to take the test that could make or break their future.


“Our film is called Tested and some people approach it as “oh, it’s going to be about standarized testing, the pros and cons of it”, says Chin. “but really for me Tested is about our country and how we are treating each other and are we equally providing opportunities for everybody?”


Chin adds that the debate over the test obscures a larger issue.


“Regardless of how you feel about the admission policy, ultimately, it’s only going to affect about a couple hundred kids who get into these specialized high schools”, he says.  “The bigger problem is that you have tens of thousands of other kids that are going to really bad schools and ultimately the real solution to this problem is improving the neighborhood schools, improving other educational opportunities of these families.”


For more on this story, watch February’s Asian American Life (CUNY TV)



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