Thinker’s Notebook: This is Only A Test

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I graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1992. Here is how I got into the school.

I attended Concord Elementary School, a parochial school that was housed inside of Concord Baptist Church in Bed-Stuy. I excelled in elementary school, so much so that I skipped the 5th grade, taking courses during the summer after 4th grade so that in the fall of 1985 I went straight into 6th grade. My mom applied for me to go into one of the “gifted and talented” junior high school programs in Brooklyn. I was accepted into Satellite East JHS. In Satellite East, our teachers and our Principal Mrs. Katherine Corbett stressed the importance of our future. Education was more than just regurgitating a force-fed curriculum. At Satellite East, we were made to feel that the future mattered, our future mattered. This included our choices for high school.

The Specialized High School examination was mandatory for all Satellite East 8th-graders. We had to take it. We knew we had to take it from the time we were in 7th grade. We knew the stakes involved, acceptance into one of the top 3 schools in the city – Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School. We were inspired and motivated to take that test. I remember studying for it at home with my mother. I remember taking practice exams. I remember the importance of it all. I took the test. Based on my score, I was accepted to Brooklyn Tech and I was put on Bronx High School of Science’s waiting list. I started Brooklyn Tech in the fall of 1988.

This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to diversify the city’s eight Specialized High Schools. Part of his plan would be to eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Immediately following this announcement, Asian-American groups came out in protest, condemning the plan as being motivated by racism. Although Asian-Americans make up only 16% of all public school students, they received 52% of the Specialized High School seat offers last year. Conversely, Blacks and Latinos received just 10% of the Specialized High School seat offers last year, even though they make up 67% of all public school students.

To truly understand why the numbers seem so disparaging, there are a myriad of issues that need to be fleshed out. For example, the test itself isn’t discussed in many of our city’s junior high schools. Yes, the test is available to anyone who wishes to register to one of the Specialized High Schools, however, many of our children are unfortunately being educated in schools that never even discuss the test and certainly don’t offer the opportunity for them to take it. A couple of years ago, I sat in a meeting with a few Black students from Brooklyn Tech that started the hashtag #blackinbrooklyntech. One student told me that when he was in junior high school his guidance counselor told him that he should feel lucky to be taking the SHSAT, because taking that test is a luxury. It is not a luxury though. Back in the late 80’s, our junior high schools citywide allotted for that test. As a result, a school like Brooklyn Technical was 35% Black in 1990. Today, it’s only 7% Black.

Making the test mandatory for all junior high school students would be a step in the right direction, but it would be pointless to do so unless those junior high schools worked to prepare their students for the exam. This would go a long way in leveling the playing field by offering every 8th-grader in the city an opportunity for them to study for and take the exam. Asian-Americans are currently represented in such high numbers in Specialized High Schools because they use the test as a way to put themselves in a position to be successful. They know about the test. They prepare for it and they take it. There is no trick to it, they simply view the test as a mandatory part of the educational process.

The correct answer in this issue is to make the SHSAT a mandatory citywide exam, and to hold the junior high schools accountable for preparing students to take the exam. That’s what worked for me. I didn’t spend thousands of dollars on Kaplan prep courses to take the test. My junior high school prepared me. My mother prepared me. Our children don’t need affirmative action-type policies to excel. They only need our educational system to do its job. The SHSAT shouldn’t be stigmatized as this great divide between the haves and the have-nots. It’s only a test.