The Attack on Educational Excellence

Schools considered ‘too Asian’ were once branded ‘too white’ or ‘too Jewish.’


By Jason L. Riley


New York Mayor Bill de Blasio stands 6½ feet tall but still managed to come up short last week. The progressive Democrat wanted to eliminate the entrance exam for the city’s eight elite public high schools to ensure that more black and Hispanic students were admitted. State lawmakers, citing opposition from Asian families, blocked the move. Good for them.


The number of available slots at these schools is fixed, and last year Asian students were awarded 52.5% of them, according to the city’s Department of Education. By contrast, whites comprised 28% of the total, while Latinos and blacks were 6.5% and 3.8%, respectively. You’ll find similarly lopsided racial and ethnic results in other large cities—Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia—where black and Latino students are underrepresented in academically selective public high schools while whites and Asians are overrepresented.


Asian families in particular fear that replacing an objective test with what amounts to a racial quota system would come at the expense of Asian children. Given that other schools and programs for high-achieving students around the country are being pressed to become more “diverse,” those concerns are understandable.


After the Montgomery County school district in Maryland changed admissions standards for gifted-and-talented programs—by broadening the definition of “gifted,” among other adjustments—black and Latino acceptance rates ticked up while Asian admissions fell. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is an elite magnet school in Northern Virginia that also uses an entrance exam. The school’s acceptance rate matches Georgetown University’s (just 17%) and its student body last year was 2.2% Latino, 1.5% black and nearly two-thirds Asian. A 2017 profile of the high school in Washingtonian magazine noted that administrators are under constant pressure from outsiders to increase the number of black and Latino students by watering down the selection criteria.


In the upside-down thinking of affirmative-action advocates, academically rigorous schools should be more focused on achieving racial balance and less focused on maintaining high standards. Asian displays of academic excellence therefore become problematic. Asians are somehow to blame for outperforming others, and they are to be punished for the historical injustices that blacks suffered at the hands of whites. This is what happens when you try to reconcile what is irreconcilable: group preferences on the one hand and equal treatment of individuals on the other.


But Mr. de Blasio’s decision to call for an end to the test, instead of calling for better test preparation, is also revealing. What he and other critics of selective schools are saying is that these low-income black and Latino kids will never measure up, so we must stop trying to measure them. The mayor and his allies seem to have given up on the very students they claim to be helping. How, exactly, you help one group by holding it to lower standards than other groups isn’t clear. Deciding which groups deserve special treatment is also problematic. Schools today that are considered “too Asian” were in times past branded “too white” or “too Jewish.”


Mr. de Blasio and his fellow education egalitarians also conveniently ignore the ample evidence of minority academic success because it undermines their argument that the problem is the exam requirement, not poor exam preparation. But if the mayor is genuinely concerned with increasing the number of black and brown students matriculating at top high schools like Bronx Science and Stuyvesant, he ought to pay a visit to one of New York’s high-achieving public charter schools.

See: An Asian American Awakening

Success Academy, for example, operates 46 public charter schools in New York. They serve more than 15,000 students, the vast majority of whom are poor and black or Latino. Success students regularly shellac their peers in the city and state on standardized tests. A spokeswoman for Success Academy told me by email that the acceptance rate for Success applicants at the city’s elite schools this year was more than double that of black and Latino students citywide, and “there were three Success middle schools whose students of color were three to four times as likely to gain admission.” This year, Success Academy graduated its first high-school class, and all of its members are college-bound. These students didn’t need someone to make school admissions tests less rigorous. They needed educators and education-policy makers who believed in them.


Similarly, Mr. de Blasio doesn’t need to overhaul admissions at high-performance schools to boost percentages of minority students. Instead, he could give successful charter schools, private schools and parochial schools more access to underprivileged students—something he has resisted out of fealty to teachers union leaders who vehemently oppose school choice. Here’s an idea: Leave the best schools alone, and make sure the next mayor cares less about union support and more about the 47,800 children now sitting on New York’s charter school waiting list.