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At 13, Kanae Bunch knows her ticket out of the South Bronx.
"Even if they call you nerd or whatever, it doesn't matter because you know what you're doing is right," she said. "There's no 'not' even in my mind not to go. It's like, 'What? You're not going to college?' I have to go. Priority."
But before Kanae gets into college, she has to get into high school. She's aiming for one of New York City's elite specialized schools, which have long been considered a path to success for the city's poor and working-class students. Eight of these high schools, including Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Technical, are feeders to the country's best colleges and have produced 14 Nobel laureates.
Every fall, nearly 30,000 eighth and ninth graders vie for one of these coveted seats by taking the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT. It's been the basis for admission for more than 70 years. But recently it's been under attack.
Many students find their neighborhood schools don't prepare them for the exam. At Kanae's school, more than 90 percent of students fail to even pass the state's standardized tests. And as a result, black and Hispanic enrollment at New York City's top high schools has plummeted to record lows. For the 2012-2013 school year, Stuyvesant High School, the city's most sought-after school, accepted only 19 black students out of 967 available spots in the freshman class.
Mayor Bill de Blasio called the single-test entry requirement created a "rich-get-richer" system that benefits those who can afford pricey test prep. This summer, state legislators introduced a bill to change a 1971 law so that admission would include other factors. In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, arguing that the single-test system disproportionately hurt black and Latino students.
"Really what the test is testing is how well you do on that test," explained Rachel Kleinman of the NAACP's LDF. "And therefore, students who have access to test prep or prioritized test prep are the ones who are getting in."
But it's not affluent or white students who are acing the test and edging out less-privileged, minority applicants. In a twist that has raised uncomfortable cultural questions,it's Asian-American students, many of them low-income, who are beating out everyone.
'A test isn't racist'
Tahseen Chowdhury's family emigrated from Bangladesh to Queens in the early 1990s, where his father found a job in a Manhattan deli. Motivated by hopes of eventually running a tech startup, the 14-year-old travels almost three hours every day to and from Stuyvesant High School.
"I feel that Stuyvesant is not a rich kids’ school, because most of the people I go to school with are not rich," Tahseen said. "They're in financial situations like me. They just try really hard. Their families try really hard and they find ways just to get prepped and to study and to get into here."
Asian-Americans, New York City's fastest-growing racial minority group, make up around 13 percent of the city's population. And they account for more than 60 percent of the students at the city's specialized high schools. According to the city's most recent poverty measure, Asian-Americans also have the highest poverty rate of any racial group in New York City – 29 percent, compared to Latinos at 25 percent and blacks at 22 percent.
Tahseen doesn't think the test is biased in favor of wealthy students who got fancy tutoring; he thinks it's biased toward people who studied really hard for the test.
"I'm against changing the SHSAT because the SHSAT and Stuyvesant in general is based just on merit and how well you do in school and how well you succeed in the test," he said. "I feel like a test isn't racist."
Tahseen did get extra help on the test; he spent two years prepping at Khan's Tutorial, one of many test prep centers in areas serving large populations of Asian-Americans.
Ivan Khan, the president and CEO of Khan's Tutorial, believes it isn't higher income that gives these students an advantage. His company offers discounts to students who are especially in need, and he said the cost for most ends up being between $11 and $13. It's the tunnel focus of many of their families on ensuring their child's academic success that makes the real difference, he explained.
"No matter whether you're a physician back home in Korea or an engineer back in Bangladesh… for whatever reason you moved to the United States, most families have to start all over again," said Khan, himself a graduate of Bronx Science. "…It means working blue-collar jobs in the taxi industry, restaurant industry or shop owners, and all immigrants would love for their children to have better opportunities. And that's the main reason they migrated here in the first place."
Many black and Hispanic families say their children aren't shuttled to tutoring places like Khan's because of money, as well as a lack of awareness that the SHSAT is something extra to prepare for outside of regular school.
In its federal complaint and a subsequent report, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund urged New York City to adopt a more "holistic" approach to admissions, including interviews, recommendations, leadership skills, community service and other "quantitative and qualitative" factors to judge each candidate.
I feel that Stuyvesant is not a rich kids’ school, because most of the people I go to school with are not rich. They're in financial situations like me. They just try really hard.
But some argue that such broadened admissions criteria would actually favor more affluent white students. Elaborate eighth-grade resumes, they say, often have a higher price tag than excellent test scores.
The world of competitive college admissions offers some evidence. According to the award-winning research of University of California, Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel, Ivy League officials became alarmed at the skyrocketing number of Jewish students at their schools in the 1920s. So, they shelved their more objective, academic standard for admissions in favor of a more "holistic" and subjective approach that would allow them to better shape the ethnic makeup of their classes. Jewish enrollment dropped as a result.
While anti-Jewish discrimination has faded away from the admissions offices of America's premier universities, Karabel refers to Asian-Americans as "the new Jews." It's a hard phenomenon to quantify, because numbers are scant. But a Princeton researcher and his collaborator analyzed admissions data at eight elite universities from 1997, the last year the schools released these numbers. They found that being Asian, compared to white, was the equivalent of a 140-point penalty on your SATs.
By pure demographics, Kanae's chance of admissions to one of the city's elite high schools is slim. But she may be one of the lucky ones. Kanae was chosen for a free, six-year college prep program called Breakthrough New York that offers tutoring and mentoring to high-potential, low-income students. She's given up her summers, weeknights and Saturdays. In exchange, she says, she's learned how, when and what to study to get a winning score on the SHSAT.
And more than that, she says she's been exposed to a diverse array of people she never before imagined.
"Coming from the South Bronx, it's really basically two cultures you can learn from: African-American and Hispanic. So, it's really the same kind of people," she said. "…And I'm like wow, I get to meet different people, different cultures, religions, different everything that you can think of… It's a whole world."
The Breakthrough program has also opened Kanae up to a host of other college-prep high school options. She's already applied to several boarding schools and dreams of attending Brown University. She's hopes to one day become a writer.
Kanae was the only student chosen for Breakthrough from her middle school, according to her mother Chrystal Bunch, who also teaches there. While Kanae feels fortunate, Bunch can't help thinking of the kids in this neighborhood who are left behind.
"She had an opportunity but that was out of 350 students. What’s going to happen to the rest? Or what about the children who didn’t score so high but they’re still brilliant?" Kanae’s mother said. "…I have six kids at home, and again she’s the only one. What happens to the other five?”