I wanted to know what my high school peers thought about the SHSAT, so I asked them

Asian students like me make up the majority of those enrolled in NYC specialized high schools. Why was nobody asking for our input?

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

In June 2018, I began to hear news about then-Mayor Bill de Blasio wanting to do away with the Standardized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the exam New York City students take to get into one of eight specialized high schools. These specialized schools are seen as huge stepping stones into elite colleges. 

Instead of basing admissions on SHSAT scores, de Blasio recommended admitting the top 7% of students in each middle school. He said specialized high schools did not reflect the diversity of the city — while most New York City public school students are Black and Hispanic, they make up only about 10% of specialized high school enrollment — and that he believed the test was not an accurate measure of a student’s intelligence. He also argued for setting aside 20% of specialized high school seats for students enrolled in the Discovery program, which offers slots to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the cutoff score. 

Merry Li (Courtesy photo)

I tried to understand the argument. But as an Asian American, I felt like de Blasio’s plan was directly targeting us. Asians currently make up the majority of students in specialized high schools, and no one was asking for our input. 

Meanwhile, I spent years struggling to study for the SHSAT, spending hours at after-hour cram schools. Many of my classmates and I faced pressure from our parents to uplift our immigrant families through admission to a specialized school and, eventually, a good college. Now it felt like we were being punished for doing exactly what was asked of us. It appeared that Asian students were being pushed out of top schools precisely because too many of us worked hard and achieved top scores. 

If the city changed the admissions requirements, and Asians were being accepted less but were still as qualified, would that not be a new issue? 

I wanted to learn more about this issue so I recently spoke with Vivian Louie, Director of the Asian American Studies Center and Program at Hunter College. Over the years, I never spoke about my concerns about discarding the SHSAT with classmates because I thought it might cause heated discussions since I attend a specialized high school.  

Professor Louie encouraged me to have the difficult conversations, though, and said they might help me better understand others’ perspectives about the SHSAT.  

At the same time, I read a story on Youth Communication’s website about the Discovery program, written by Richard Zhao (republished in Chalkbeat). Zhao is Asian, and thanks to Discovery he got into the specialized high school of his choice. He also disagrees with the SHSAT being the sole admission requirement: “I don’t think my eligibility for getting into any school should be based on one test,” Richard wrote.  

To gain more perspectives, I created an anonymous survey and asked administrators at my school to send it to 11th grade students. I also asked some friends at other schools to pass along the survey to their classmates. There were 10 questions ranging from  “On a scale of 1-10 how fair do you think the SHSAT is?” to “Did you have access to test prep when preparing for SHSAT?” 

One student discussed the intricacies of expensive private test prep and how those programs can be harmful. 

I received 34 responses. Comments included: “I find it bogus that a singular test determines if ur good enough for the top schools,” to “Whilst the test does promote this idea of equal testing for all, people go into the test with different levels of preparedness as some go to specialized tutoring, which is paid for, whilst some don’t have the funds to do so.”  

On accepting the top 7%, one student said: “grades at school don’t truly symbolize how well you know the material. The teacher can be biased, or any other reason besides knowledge can affect a school grade. A test is more uniform, and everyone has the same advantage to do well or bad on it.” 

Another student raised an important caveat about preparedness: “Depends because some specialized high schools are full of extremely tough workloads and pushing that onto a student who doesn’t meet their standards could possibly be detrimental to their own mental health.”  

Some echoed my concerns around race, saying: “isn’t that unfair to Asians, because the reason why this is a subject is because there [are] more Asians?” 

One of my biggest takeaways was that almost 70% of respondents received SHSAT prep, but there was an acknowledged consensus that test prep is not accessible to everyone. Many students did not know about the city’s DREAM summer test prep program.  

One student discussed the intricacies of expensive private test prep and how those programs can be harmful. “[P]rep places are very snobbish and they have this hierarchy. At one place we had rankings for our levels of understanding for both math and English and it did not feel well being ranked all the way in the bottom. You could tell there was more dedication put on students who were succeeding versus those who were not doing so well.” 

The most common rating for how fair everyone thought the test was 6 out of 10 (at 47.1%), with a score of 1 being not fair at all and 10 being very fair. Overall, everyone who took this survey agreed that the test itself is not unfair; however, what’s especially flawed is how the test is executed, who has access to it, and how students are prepared for it.  

I am thinking of doing a follow-up survey and would ask those who think accepting the top 7% is a good idea why they think so. And I would also send this survey to students at various other high schools. These results are from a specific group — current high school students who did well enough on the test to get into specialized or prestigious high schools. I would love to know what students attending less-resourced high schools think about this topic. 

I also want to do another survey for individuals that identify as Asian to see what they think. Do they have the same thoughts that I have?  

After having some time to reflect, I understand that there is not as much racial diversity as one would hope in specialized high schools. Mayor de Blasio’s proposal never went into effect, and it doesn’t feel like there’s been a real solution for creating more diversity. The new mayor, Eric Adams, has said the state should determine the future of the SHSAT. 

I feel like some changes should be made to the Discovery program and how they pick their candidates. For example, what if your family falls just below the cutoff, but still lives in poverty? How can that be fair?  

Now, I think more about the lack of equal opportunities. I am a 16-year-old high school student who isn’t privy to the inner workings of how politicians and education policymakers make decisions about funding or enrollment rules. But I also feel like many adults don’t listen enough to students’ opinions, don’t tell us why they think certain choices benefit us, or simply don’t care. Maybe the adults will begin to listen. 

A version of this essay was originally published by Youth Communication

Merry Li is a junior at the Brooklyn Latin School. Merry enjoys writing and art, and aspires to be an architect.