A World Beyond the SHSAT
What should come next for education?
Any time you write on the SHSAT, the single standardized test used for admittance into New York City’s specialized high schools, you trod on thorny terrain. Even ardent defenders of the system will acknowledge, quietly, it’s imperfect, that it’s a tad strange that in this one facet of an individual’s existence, only one test decides their fate. MCAT and LSAT scores are largely determinative, but even medical school and law school applicants have to care about their undergraduate GPAs and who writes their recommendation letters. The SHSAT truly stands alone.
I’ve long argued that any debate over the city’s specialized high school test must account for the stark reality that one group of applicants is taking up a majority of slots. Asian American students, many of them of working class and immigrant origin, are the success story of the SHSAT. Critics of the test point to the slight over-representation of whites, when accounting for the overall public school population, but this is like arguing a .500 baseball team is not truly mediocre because they’ve won two or three more games than they’ve lost. There are far more Asians at Stuyvesant than whites. If you are going to change how the specialized high schools admit students in New York—and there are many good reasons to do this—you will inevitably slash the number of Chinese and Korean students at Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, the Bronx High School of Science, and other schools. This is why so many Asian parents have fought so bitterly to protect the system. They believe liberals want to punish them for their success.
Now, should this system exist? Should any aspect of New York City’s byzantine public and private school system persist? Ideally—and if politics meant nothing—much of it would either be obliterated or returned to an older form. This is where I often lose both the defenders and critics of the SHSAT. I have come to believe school quality is overrated—not in the sense that it doesn’t matter where you send your child, but that no single public or private school has a magic property, with magic teachers and magic resources, that can vault your child to a perpetually prosperous future existence in the upper middle class. In the United States, most families socially reproduce, landing their children within the economic strata of wherever they began. Scaling a class ladder is very difficult and, relative to the overall population, rare. Now, many children do rise higher than their parents, and certainly the children of immigrants can outperform their parents, especially if these parents, newly-arrived, have poor English proficiency and take menial work. This is where the stress of the SHSAT comes from. Immigrants from China, South Korea, and other nations settle in New York believing, wholeheartedly, that they must invest enormous resources into their children so they can score well enough to attend the specialized schools. In Chinese-language media, changes to the testing schedule that wouldn’t register at all among native New York are front page news.
But does failing to reach a SHSAT school mean, suddenly, you are cast out of professional class life?