The SHSAT Discourse is Broken
What the media (and everyone else) gets wrong
Last week, the New York Times reported that just seven Black students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. This was the Times’ focus for a story that also noted that a mere 10 percent of students who are Black and Hispanic were admitted into city specialized high schools overall. For the Times, the Stuyvesant figure seized the headline, because the statistics were so dramatic. Stuyvesant, perhaps the crown jewel of the specialized high schools in New York, admitted 762 students total. Seven out of 762 is less than 1%.
What’s going on here? “The numbers — which have remained stubbornly low for years — placed a fresh spotlight on racial and ethnic disparities in the nation’s largest school system,” the Times wrote. It’s not until the bottom of the third paragraph where the full context (almost) comes into view. “Twenty Latino students were offered spots at Stuyvesant, as were 489 Asian students and 158 white students. The rest went to multiracial students and students whose race was unknown.”
There’s the subtext here that any reader could deduce rather quickly but that left-leaning news outlets and education advocates tend to bury. Asian American students, particularly those of working class and immigrant backgrounds, absolutely dominate specialized high school exams in New York. For the many opponents of the SHSAT—the single exam that determines, in New York, whether you can enter a specialized high school—the relative lack of diversity in these schools is typically framed as a paucity of Black and Hispanic students that results from an overrepresentation of white and Asian students. But the incoming class of whites at Stuyvesant high school (“white” itself is something of a confused census category in New York, since it can mean everything from a first-generation Ukrainian immigrant to a fifth-generation Irish American to an Orthodox Jew) makes up less than 21% of the school. Non-Hispanic whites are about 32% of New York, according to Census data.
Only one group is overrepresented at the elite Manhattan public school: Asians. While they are the fastest growing demographic in New York, by far, Asians make up 14% of the city. That is your actual newspaper headline, if you want it. This fall’s Stuyvesant class will be almost two-thirds Asian when the city itself is less than one third Asian. All the handwringing over the specialized exam in New York—many education advocates and liberal activists have been trying to scrap the test for years, and former Mayor Bill de Blasio made his own failed attempt in 2018—boils down to these bare facts.
It’s not rich whites from Park Avenue crowding out Black students at nice public schools. It’s the children of immigrant parents, or maybe the grandchildren of immigrant parents, from Sunset Park, Bensonhurst, and Flushing doing the crowding.
This is how the ongoing and exhausting debate over the SHSAT exam must be framed, if there’s going to be any honesty about it.