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The Politic Blog

‘Tested’: The High Stakes in High School Admissions

“If I don’t pass the SHSAT, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life,” Andre says abashedly. Andre is a 12-year-old boy with jet black hair cut close to his scalp, brown eyes, and youthful chipmunk cheeks that belie the serious turn of his speech.

He is also one of nearly a dozen middle-school stars in Curtis Chin’s new documentary, Tested, which was screened September 30 at Prof. Mary Lui’s tea in TD. Tested takes a look at the SHSAT, or the Specialized High School Admissions Test, taken each November by over 30,000 eighth or ninth graders aiming to get into one of New York City’s nine top-notch public high schools, including Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant.

From an outsider’s perspective, Andre’s statement seems like hyperbole; however, his sentiments mirror those of many other students and parents engaging with the testing process for these schools.

It is a widely held belief that passing the SHSAT really makes a difference in the lives of its students, especially those of lower socioeconomic status, opening doors to quality education—a scarce resource in New York City. However, the two-and-a-half hour test, which consists of reading and math multiple choice questions, has come under fire in the past few years, leading to polarized debate and conflicting coverage. One New York Times article takes a close look at the Asian-American population, many of whom are low-income first-generation students. As one parent who worked 12-hour shifts at a local Chinatown laundromat puts it, doing well on the SHSAT is truly the key to a “good future.”

However, in another New York Times report, detractors of the test take issue with the homogeneity they believe is created by the test-based admissions policy, given that 75% of Stuyvesant students are Asian Americans, while only 5% are black and 7% are Hispanic. This phenomenon, they believe, does not reflect the city’s diversity. In fact, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint stating that “talented African Americans and other students of color are denied a fair opportunity to gain access to the life-changing educational experiences” made available by these specialized high schools. They have since filed a petition to reform the SHSAT to include other admissions criteria, such as essay and interview components.

Curtis Chin, acclaimed filmmaker of Who Killed Vincent Chin? and long-time believer in social justice and racial equality, first picked up on the debate about the SHSAT when he read one of the aforementioned articles. It targeted Asian-Americans’ opportunities to prepare for the test through a network of intensive tutoring programs spread throughout the community. Chin felt that that the article missed the mark, and that Asians were not gaming the system so that they would receive unfair access to specialized high schools. He decided to move from L.A. to New York City, where he sought out families of many different socioeconomic backgrounds preparing for the SHSAT. He traced the stories of two dozen or so of these families, half of which make an appearance in the film.

Tested has received much praise for its content and message. In a time of heated debate on education reform by politicians and activists, this film unearths the stories and experiences of families whose voices have up to now been silent.

The documentary does a wonderful job of surveying a diverse array of families: we meet Oona, a white girl attending a high-performing school in Chinatown; Andre, a first-generation Chinese-American at Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights; and Laurell, an African-American girl at Global Tech Prep, a Title I school offering free lunch. Their aspirations, their self-motivation, and the peer pressure they face come into full play as their narratives unfold. Oona is exceptionally enthusiastic, excelling not only in academics, but also in dance. Andre is focused on test preparation, offering incredible insights about the pressure students like him face. Laurell struggles under peer pressure from friends who do not even plan to take the SHSAT.

Chin picks up on a touching commonality among low-income students of color—their lives would truly be changed for the better by a good SHSAT score. For Andre, getting into Stuyvesant would be a huge deal. In one interview conducted in Cantonese in her small apartment, Andre’s mother speaks of the educational opportunities she lacked and that she now hopes to be opened up to her son. In another interview in an African-American household, the mother of Inrii peels carrots in the kitchen while expressing big dreams for her mathematically gifted son.

Chin professes that his film is quite politically charged. He sees no reason for Asian-American, African-American, and Latino communities to be pitted against each other. Each group needs to understand the dilemmas faced by the others. While African Americans battle racism, Asian Americans battle model-minority stereotypes. In making the film, though, Chin champions a promise that holds for all of them: no matter their color, low-income students benefit from an admissions test like the SHSAT. When Andre and Inrii place into Stuyvesant, their mothers are overjoyed. Inrii is the first in his community to earn admission, and for him, it’s a huge stepping-stone in his career.

As students in New York City are tested, they buy into the SHSAT’s ethos of providing equal opportunity. Chin seems to issue a challenge: America must be tested too. School systems must step up to provide equal opportunity to all students and close the achievement gap for low-income families.

Interested in the fate of Oona and Laurell? Tested is still on tour right now. Screenings are being held at colleges throughout the East Coast and Midwest.

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