Alex Brandon / AP

Don’t Scrap the Test, Help Black Kids Ace It

The current debate over the admissions test for New York City’s elite public high schools—a test Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to get rid of—is focused too much on “access” and not enough on preparation, John McWhorter argued earlier this month.

“To eliminate the test now would be to do so simply because black students were underperforming on it,” he wrote. “Whatever the good intentions behind that move, it would be antithetical to civic harmony.”


New York City should welcome additional test prep, awareness, and resources for students. But we know the results of that work would only go so far in improving the diversity of admissions at specialized high schools.

There are flaws with the single test as a barometer for entry: The test does not account for a student’s performance inside the classroom, and evaluates only two subject areas.

Proponents of the exam rightfully note that acceptance can change the academic trajectory of students who attend Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, or Brooklyn Tech. But the process raises a real question about the equally high-performing students who will not be admitted. These students will miss out on the opportunity that many are fighting to protect.

The proposed process of improving diversity will take decades to achieve and face numerous political hurdles, but there is an available fix in the interim: The city can adopt a model of offering 50 percent of slots to the students with the highest citywide scores and offering the remaining 50 percent of slots to the highest-scoring test takers in each of the city’s diverse 32 school districts. This would spur diversity while ensuring the objectivity that many seek to preserve.

Keith Powers
New York City Council Member
New York, N.Y.


As a Stuyvesant High School alumna and a Korean American, I have been deeply disturbed by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans for my alma mater and by the unenlightened coverage of many newspapers. The editorial by Professor McWhorter is the most insightful and fairest assessment I have read to date.

Like McWhorter, I am angered by the thoughtless comments by de Blasio and his chancellor, neither of whom is a product of the New York City school system. While I believe diversity can only benefit Stuyvesant and all it stands for, I disagree with de Blasio’s proposal to eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test in order to achieve this. A blanket quota system is not the solution. There are numerous alternatives, as McWhorter eloquently, fairly, and painstakingly points out.

The fact that the entrance examination is based on a color-blind system is what made my acceptance there so beautiful to me. My parents and I came to the United States in 1965, just one year after the Civil Rights Act. I attended a small Catholic junior high school in Brooklyn.

My school friend told me that Stuyvesant was the best high school in New York, so I wanted to attend. My mother and I went to Barnes & Noble and bought a paperback study manual. On weekends, my mother taught me how to understand the exam; I was the first student ever to pass it from my junior high school. I passed by only two points, but graduated in the top 2 percent at Stuyvesant and went on to attend Barnard College. To this day, nothing fills me with more pride than my acceptance into Stuyvesant.

Something must be done to improve diversity while not taking the extreme measures that de Blasio insists on.

Dianne Rim
New York, N.Y.


John McWhorter replies:

All proposals by Mr. Powers to reexamine the aptness of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as a measure of students’ scholastic abilities are welcome. However, they should be appraised only after we show that black kids can excel on the test. Any solution founded on a basic idea that we have to get rid of the test because black kids don’t do well on it is hasty, and risks making black kids look dim. Even if the test isn’t a perfect measure of scholastic ability, the question will always be why black kids had so much trouble with it while other kids—including poor ones—did not. Anyone who thinks that just doesn’t matter, or that it will suffice to simply dismiss anyone who asks questions like those as a racist, or that people like Dianne Rim are dismissible as mere “model minorities” from whom we have nothing to learn, isn’t thinking hard enough. Too many immigrant kids are going to the same iffy schools that black kids are, and they are doing well on the test. People like Mr. Powers need worry neither that black kids just aren’t up to the task nor that they will be up to it only if they attend excellent schools—the acceptance rate of black students at New York’s specialized high schools in the 1990s and earlier showed that they can ace the SHSAT in an imperfect New York City.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.