Flushing Candidates Spar Over HS Test Issue

Editor’s note: A series of stories published in Sing Tao Daily on Oct. 7, by reporter Stella Chan, explored some of the issues and political wrangling around the possibility that the SHSAT, the test whose results determine entry into the city’s top specialized high schools, may be revised as well as supplemented by other admission criteria. Bills were proposed in the State Senate and Assembly earlier this year, aimed at reducing the importance of the test in admissions and offering opportunity to more black and Latino students. Many Asians, especially Chinese and Koreans, who make up the majority in the top three specialized high schools, strongly oppose the reform.

The bills failed to pass in the spring session. But a recent proposal of the Department of Education to revise the test set off a new outcry. The thorny issue even sparked a fierce battle between two Assembly candidates in Asian-dominated Flushing. One candidate had approached the DOE to get a promise that nothing will change this year. Meanwhile, the DOE’s contract with a test company is expiring, and the new contract is likely to include a writing component.

Ron Kim (second from right) at The Flushing Chinese Business Association on Oct. 6. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Ron Kim (second from right) at The Flushing Chinese Business Association on Oct. 6. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

The battle over reform of the admission criteria for specialized high schools now starts a new round. In Assembly District 40, where 60 percent of the population is Asian, Democratic candidate Ron Kim, the incumbent, and Republican challenger Phil Gim accuse each other of politicizing the issue and using it as a stake for the upcoming election. Kim claimed on Oct. 6 that he had never co-sponsored the controversial bill introduced, and failed to pass, in the Assembly earlier this year. Gim responded with a tit-for-tat comment: “I am glad he joins my team,” a sarcastic way to criticize Kim for his flip-flop on this issue.

The new episode was spurred by the recent RFP from the Department of Education on the revision of SHSAT. Within the jurisdiction allowed by state law, the DOE suggests adding a written test in SHSAT and providing the test in 12 languages. The new contract will be valid from 2016 to 2021, which means the new test will affect students looking to apply for the city’s top specialized high schools for at least the next six years.

More and more Chinese parents and alumni from specialized high schools are joining forces to criticize the state and the city governments for harming the interest of Asians (Translator’s note: The opposition against the RFP is based on the presumption that Asian students, who excel on standardized tests, are not particularly good at writing).

Asians, particularly Chinese and Koreans, make up about 60 percent of students at Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School. And after the latest redistricting, 63 percent of the total population in Assembly District 40 in Flushing are Asian. Therefore, SHSAT reform has become a fighting point between the two candidates.

The deadline for the RFP is Oct. 23. Kim met with representatives from the mayor’s office and high-level officials from the DOE on Oct. 3. He announced on Oct. 6 at a press conference held at the office of The Flushing Chinese Business Association that the city has promised that there will be no change on the test this year, and students who are ready to take the test soon won’t be affected.

It will take a while for the city to go over and discuss the RFP proposals after the deadline. So changes won’t be adopted overnight. And most importantly, the city promised to listen to the community during the process and to make sure the contract is offered to a proposal that satisfies the public interest.

Kim said his position on this issue has never changed. He doesn’t like the status quo that bases admission decisions solely on the scores of one test. But the debates the reform triggered are largely from a racial perspective. It made the goal of the reform look like a means to increase the number of black and Hispanic students. This has deepened the division among ethnic communities. Therefore, he never co-sponsored the previous bill.

Kim said he had made it clear to the DOE during the meeting that if the agency launches a reform without listening to the community, it won’t get his support. Kim said his opponent’s comment that SHSAT is “perfect” is out of his own political interest. But it can only hurt the Asian community.

Phil Gim points out Ron Kim's attendance at the June press conference. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Phil Gim points out Ron Kim’s attendance at the June press conference. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Gim immediately fought back on Oct. 6 with the same degree of force, if not more. He presented several news clippings that showed Kim attending the press conference for the introduction of the previous bill on June 11. Gim said Kim supported the bill then and only tried to woo the Asian community now. “Many assembly members were not willing to show up at that press conference. Even the chair of the Education Committee of the Assembly was not there,” said Gim. “If he (Kim) didn’t support the bill, why was he there?”

Responding to Kim’s claim that he put his own political interest as priority, Gim said he has been paying attention to this issue since March. He said about 36 percent of high school students living in Queens are in specialized high schools, and 26 percent of them live in Assembly District 40. In The Bronx High School of Science, 60 percent of students are Queens residents. The majority live in school districts 25 and 26 (translator’s note: in AD 40 territory).

Gim said when Kim attended the press conference in June, he may not have been fully aware of the demography of his district. Gim said Kim only realized he made a mistake when he learned Gim’s position, then joined his side. “Who is the one that puts his own political interest above all?”

Gim said he has never said SHSAT is “perfect.” If there is another way to select qualified students objectively without considering their skin color and immigrant backgrounds, he will support it. And he is willing to debate Kim on this matter.

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