DOWNTOWN – Friday night saw nearly two hundred people turn up for to voice their opinion on the future of the now-controversial SHSAT exam at the Youth and Community Speak Out on Equity, Diversity, and Admissions, held at the Pzifer Auditorium at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, at Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center. The event was organized by State Senators, including Senator Velmanette Montgomery (D 25), who is a member of the State Senate Education Committee, and Senator John C. Liu (D 11), who heads that same Committee. Other politicians, including Senator Zellnor Myrie (D 20) and Senator Andrew Gounardes (D 22), Kevin Parker (D21), Roxanne Persaud (D19) as well as assemblymembers William Colton (D47) and Jo Anne Simon (D52) were in attendance.
The format was a debate over whether to eschew the SHSAT exam in order to increase diversity for New York City’s eight specialized high schools grows stronger. The intensity over how some Brooklynites, as well as other New Yorkers, feel about the tough exam was felt strongly Friday night, with many wearing T-shirts declaring their support for the SHSAT.
Earlier in the day, there was a public NYS Assembly hearing, in which no consensus was made on regarding whether scrapping the SHSAT would help increase diversity at the aforementioned high schools, according to Chalkbeat. But one thing was agreed on: the political leaders were not pleased by Mayor DeBlasio’s plans of how to tackle segregation in NYC public schools.
Among the speakers were students, parents, educators, alumni from specialized high schools, such as Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant High School, and community activists. Nearly all supported the SHSAT. Those in attendance were mostly Asian families, some of whom attend I.S. 187 Christa McAuliffe School in District 20, a school where many go on to the elite high schools.
A couple of students from I.S. 187 Christa McAuliffe spoke on stage, urging the listening Senators to keep the SHSAT.
“Testing is a very objective measurement that shows how well you know something,” said a sixth-grader named Fiona. “I never had a teacher tell me or my classmates that if we don’t do well on a test, she would scrap the test.”
Another sixth-grader at I.S. 187 explained that the SHSAT is part of the American Dream, where if you work hard, you’ll advance in society. “Anybody can take the test, and it doesn’t matter how you look, where you live, or how you sound in an interview; you just have to work hard.”
Another sixth-grader, named Chorus Lee, said, “Taking away the SHSAT is taking away chances of many students. Everyone should have the chance to take it, no matter your race, no matter your color, no matter where you live, and no matter your looks. You just have to try.”
She went on to say she would be an eighth grader in 2021, and by then the SHSAT would be gone. Which would mean the chances of her getting in to a good high school, a good college and getting a high-paying job would be slimmer.
Other speakers pointed out that the tutoring and practice courses that help students prepare for the SHSAT can be too expensive for low-income families to take, and called for free SHSAT courses at schools so all students in all schools would be ready for the rigorous exam.
Many of those who spoke criticized both the Mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza for politicizing the education system, and, as one parent put it, “scapegoating a test” rather than facing the real problems in NYC public schools.
One supporter of the SHSAT, named Charles and wearing a T-shirt that called for the fixing of the K-8 grades, paced around the stage while passionately denouncing the chancellor.
“I am sad that since Chancellor Carranza’s been here, I haven’t seen him do anything to try to improve education,” Charles said. “What I have seen him do is increase racial division. And by taking away the SHSAT, I see it as a cover-up for failure in K-8 education.”
Many applauded, but Charles was just getting started.
“What we’re seeing is some schools, where only 2% of the children meet state standards, yet 93% of them are passing their math tests. That’s fraud.”
Charles went on to say that parents need to know how their students are actually doing in school, so all – teachers, principals, and the Chancellor – could be held accountable. Those words were met with loud applause and cheers.
“By getting rid of the SHSAT,” Charles added angrily. “Chancellor Carranza wants to rely on lowered grades, but many of these grades are fraudulent! The SHSAT is the canary in the coal mine for this fraud.”
He ended his time by urging the politicians to pass the Gifted and Talented programs, and bring back the honors programs in schools.
The Gifted and Talented program was mentioned several times by other speakers. One of them, named Larry Carey, pointed out that during the 1980s and 1990s, there were extensive programs for the Gifted and Talented, as well as an enriching education program in the middle schools, which were eliminated under Mayor Bloomberg.
“You cannot say we are giving every kid in the city the opportunity to do well on the test,” Carey said. “When we don’t provide them with the experiences to do that. Let’s give them a program that really works.”
A few spoke out against the SHSAT. One was a Bed-Stuy resident named Tasya Rahman, who criticized the exam as being the “one chance to prove my value, my worth”.
“It was overwhelming and unbearable,” she said. “It created a sense of impending failure and disappointment at a young impressionable age.”
“When you allow a single test to be the only standard of intelligence,” Rahman continued. “You breed a toxic learning environment with students cheating, bragging about loss of sleep and competing with each other or even bullying each other. As a Muslim, I heard many Islamophobic comments.”
Although the Speak Out was meant to discuss the SHSAT exam and diversity in schools, the issue of race came up a couple of times, even though both the politicians and some attendants accused the Chancellor for pitting one race against the other.
When Chorus Lee spoke, she included this in her speech:
“If I work hard, should I have a higher advantage than those who don’t even try? Instead, they are the ones having a higher advantage. Because while I am doing practice exams, studying and trying my best, other students are probably watching TV and playing video games, and are not even trying. It’s just not right for me to work hard while others are just being lazy.”
Although a few chuckled at her words, Senator Montgomery was not pleased.
“Be very careful how you prepare them for this argument,” she said after congratulating the parents for raising future leaders. “We should not assume that because a group of young people that we’re fighting about…it’s not that they didn’t get into the schools because they’re lazy.”
That was met with enthusiastic applause, and the Senator went on to say, “It is your responsibility and it is an obligation that you make sure those children do not internalize those racist attitudes.”
Senator Roxanne J. Persaud (D 19) also said, “We’re not asking anyone to pit one against the other. By doing that, you’re not helping anyone by having that kind of conversation. It is not OK.”
That was met with some heckling, and Senator Liu spoke up to explain what the student probably meant by “lazy”.
“Chorus Lee never mentioned anything about race,” he said. “I could tell you…when we [Asian-Americans] say ‘lazy people’, we’re not talking about anybody from any other race. A lot of times, we’re talking about siblings and other people we go to school with.”
Later on, a woman named Mary Alice, an alum of Stuyvesant, did not hold back when lashing out at the Asian-American community.
“High achieving African-American and Hispanic youth scholars,” she said, “cannot compete with a culture that has no problem with cheating on standardized tests. I Googled cheating on standardized tests in Asia and the United States. Cheating is so rampant in Asia, that China had to pass a law.”
“Everything I am saying now, and will say, I have documentation,” Mary Alice held up a pack of papers. “Some of the newer immigrants… have come with their cultural view of cheating on standardized tests. There have been documented cheating in Stuyvesant in 2012 and 2013. This is a serious public policy issue. People who cheat on tests cannot be trusted to be competent doctors, engineers, judges, etc.”
A few audience members heckled Mary Alice during her speech, and there was a sense of awkwardness in the air. Even so, once her time was up, a good number of audience members applauded and she gave her stack of papers to Senator Montgomery, who accepted them. No one denounced her words.
Although the event started at 6 p.m. and meant to go until 8 p.m., the final speaker finished just after 10 p.m., since over 60 people signed up to speak. There were no final words as the auditorium had to be emptied out immediately, though Senator Liu gave a simple “Thank you”.