When I was a student studying Japanese at Stuyvesant High School, I remember learning the word for “cram school’: juku. Juku are extracurricular private schools that offer tutorial services for regular subjects in addition to intensive university entrance exam preparation. As a Stuyvesant student, this concept was not unfamiliar to me — spending days, weeks, or even months studying for a single exam that would determine the course of my future. After all, that level of focus was what got many of us into Stuy the first place.
At Stuy, students’ study habits really fell into two categories: diligent cramming, or skidding by with whatever means it took to snag a passing grade (granted, there’s passing, and then there’s Stuy passing). My Japanese teacher would deter us from the latter, lazier alternative by snipping off the corners of subpar homework assignments and taping them to the blackboard. “Do not cut corners!” she would chide, and gesture at the little triangles of notebook paper hovering over the chalk as testaments to our indolence.
In the wake of a cheating scandal that has propelled my alma mater into the limelight yet again, I can’t help but reflect on the time I spent at the school that boasts an average SAT score in the 96th percentile and makes college feel like a cakewalk by comparison. When Nayeem Ahsan incited his elaborate cheating ring last semester, he knew he was doing a huge disservice to the hundreds of students taking the exam without outside assistance. But by the same token, to the dozens of overachievers juggling theater practice, sports, music lessons, and hours of studying and homework a night, he offered a solution to an otherwise impossible problem — namely, how do you keep your head above water when so many of your classmates are headed for Ivy League acceptance, and your grade point average is calculated to the second decimal?
I will not condone cheating. Instead, I would like to paint a picture for the parents of future eight graders who think sending their students into a four-year juku is the only path to success.
A chart in a civil rights complaint about the city's specialized high school admissions process shows the acceptance rates for students of different racial groups. (Click to enlarge.)
It seemed like a good strategy: To boost the tiny number of black and Hispanic students at the city's most elite high schools, the city this year expanded access to programs meant to prepare eighth-graders for the schools' admissions test.
But that approach is fundamentally broken, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which today filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test.
"More tutoring and more test prep is not the answer," said Damon Hewitt, LDF's director of education. "We need a real paradigm shift."
The complaint calls for a new way of admitting students to the city's eight specialized high schools. The schools have long screened students by ranking their performance on a one-time exam, a practice that was written into state law in 1972 for the three schools that were then open.
But that approach has yielded student bodies that do not reflect the city's demographics — or even the demographics of the students who take the test. Last year, black and Hispanic students made up 45 percent of test-takers, but they represented only 14 percent of admitted students. At Stuyvesant High School, the most selective and least racially diverse, just 25 black and Hispanic students were offered seats.
Today's the day that guidance counselors distribute envelopes to eighth graders with news of whether and which of the city's top-tier high schools opened the door for them. But for minority students, the news continues to be grim.
Combined, white and Asian students account for 70 percent of the students admitted to elite schools like Stuyvesant, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School. Hispanic students make up 6 percent of those admitted and black students 5 percent. The remainder, 18 percent, come from private or parochial schools and racial data for them was not available.
Despite repeated statements of concern from city officials about the tiny number of minority students earning entry to top high schools, the numbers have only declined in the last three years. In 2009, 744 black and Hispanic students earned seats at specialized high schools. This year, 642 made it in.
Meanwhile, the number of minority students sitting for the exams has increased. Black and Hispanic students now make up a greater percentage of test takers than they did in 2009.
Offers of admission by borough. Data from the Department of Education
More than 6,000 eighth- and ninth-graders got good news today: offers of admission to one of the city's nine specialized high schools.
For the 23,000 other students who took the Specialized High School Admission Test last October, the wait to find out about what school they'll attend this fall will continue until the end of next month. They'll find out where they've been accepted at the same time as the tens of thousands of eighth graders who did not try to get into one of the city's most elite schools.
At eight city schools, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, admission is based on students' scores on the ultracompetitive Specialized High Schools Admission Test, which 29,000 eighth- and ninth-graders took last October. Admission to the ninth school, LaGuardia, depends on music or art auditions and grades.
More than 100 more students were offered spots at LaGuardia this year, 1,041 compared to 936 last year. The school is graduating a larger-than-normal class this June and so extended more offers of admission than it has in the past, according to Andrew Jacob, a Department of Education spokesman.