My Selective High School Looks Nothing Like America

As the nation addresses systemic racism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, it’s time to ask: Who is being represented in selective high schools?

Many assume that I, an Asian American student, am in favor of preserving the status quo at my predominantly white and Asian school. I’m not.

In elementary school, everyone thought I was related to the two other South Asian kids in my grade. Some scooted away from me at the lunch table—even though I brought turkey-and-mayo sandwiches—because they “didn’t like the smell of Indian food.”

But when I began at Hunter College High School, a highly selective school in New York City, I stopped hearing such comments—many of my classmates were also South Asian.

Exposure, I learned, eradicates biases. That’s one of the reasons why I find it egregious that Black, Latine, and low-income students are underrepresented at selective high schools across the country. (A selective high school admits students based on set criteria, which is usually academic. They tend to get more outside funding than non-selective high schools.)

As the nation addresses systemic racism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last year, schools should form a big part of that conversation. It’s a long-standing issue in our country—one we’ve been dealing with even after de jure segregation ended with the Civil Rights Act: Do the nation’s selective high schools have a moral obligation to represent the demographics of their cities? Or should the present system, heavily weighted as it is towards entrance exams and GPAs, be preserved—equal opportunity and fairness be damned?

Analyzing 2015 US Department of Education data, the Brookings Institution found that Chicago was the only city where selective high schools are nearly representative, racially and economically, of the city’s demographics. Boston and New York have the least racial representation in the country; Baltimore, Louisville, and Washington have the least economic representation.

Six years later, we are facing a health crisis in addition to our ongoing issue of school equity. The pandemic has only exacerbated the deep inequalities already present in America. Schools that have higher populations of low-income, Black, and Latine students tend to have less funding than majority-white schools. In the past year, because of a lack of access to technology, the Internet, food, and home security, low-income students have fallen drastically behind their wealthier counterparts. Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on Black, Latine, and low-income communities, many of which include members who are essential workers with disparate access to good health care. Unless we take immediate action, the numbers will only get worse.

The good news is that there is a precedent. Almost a decade ago, Chicago public high schools implemented a surprisingly successful admissions process. Thirty percent of their seats went to top-scoring applicants, weighing state test scores, grades, and the admission exam scores equally. The rest were admitted through a combination of academic criteria and a four-tiered socioeconomic system, with each tier being allocated an equal number of spots. This model proves that equity and excellence can go hand in hand. Chicago’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School currently has a student body that is 37 percent low-income, 29 percent Hispanic, and 18 percent Black. The school was placed 77th among a ranking of US high schools by US News in 2020 and has remained one of the top schools in Illinois (according to SchoolDigger, a site that evaluates K-12 schools based on government data).

Now, recognizing the obvious health concerns of testing during a pandemic, other selective high schools, like San Francisco’s Lowell High School, Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School, and Boston Latin, are suspending admissions tests for 2021. They’re implementing a fairer system that will admit a student body that is both diverse and high-achieving, using the pandemic as an opportunity to try alternative admissions systems.

New York—a city that prides itself on being ahead of the game—is falling behind. Last month, my sister took the SHSAT, the singular admission test that determines entry into eight high schools. (These high schools are collectively known as the specialized high schools.) There were no fundamental concessions made to the pandemic. Efforts to abolish the SHSAT have been called racist and discriminatory toward Asian students, who traditionally perform well on the test. But using some form of socioeconomic weighting for specialized high school admissions would also benefit low-income white and Asian students and diversify the Asian population—by no means a monolith—at these schools.

The school I attend, Hunter College High School (HCHS), has long been overlooked in discussions about equity in public high schools because it is run by the City University of New York (CUNY) and not the Department of Education. Entry is highly competitive. Every year, roughly 3,000 kids apply for 175 seats. Data from the Basic Educational Data System and city databases tells us that NYC’s public school population is 25.5 percent Black, 40.6 percent Latine, and 73 percent low-income. In order to qualify to take Hunter’s admissions test—the high school’s sole admissions factor—students must first score among the top 10 percent on both the 5th grade NY State English language and math tests. In 2019, the qualifying pool was 11.3 percent Black, 15.4 percent Latine, and 48 percent low income. Contrast that with Hunter’s entire student body (seventh through twelfth grades) in 2019-2020, which was 2.4 percent Black, 6.2 percent Latine, and 9 percent low-income.

There are reasons for this discrepancy. Test-prep companies make fortunes successfully tutoring students for the Hunter test. But for the median NYC household—which, according to the US Census Bureau, has an income of little over $60,000—spending thousands on test prep may not be an option. Some have argued that free or reduced-price programs exist, which levels the playing field. But students who have to work or help take care of their families will still be at a disadvantage. Arguing for increasing access to test prep is an admission that the single-test system is not an actual measure of skill. Why not use that money to investigate ways to fix the system?

Even in the middle of a pandemic, the Hunter administration has still not canceled the test, which is three hours long, administered indoors, and brings thousands of kids from across the city to sit for it every year. Moving it online would disadvantage students without access to a stable Internet connection or technology. As HCHS4Diversity, a student group, continues the decades-long internal push for reform, the administration has remained close-mouthed about future plans.

NYC specialized high schools are bound by an act called Hecht-Calandra, meaning that they must use a common test (the SHSAT) as the single point of entry. But CUNY has the flexibility to change Hunter’s admissions system and act as a model for change within our city.

In elementary school, we were taught, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” It occurs to me that the same could be said about reforming selective high schools. Hunter and NYC’s specialized high schools are extreme cases—most in other parts of the country don’t use one test as the single admissions factor. If reform can “make it” in New York, it can “make it anywhere.”

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