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An unimposing six-story building in Manhattan's Chinatown may hold the key to understanding why Asian children outperform every other ethnic group on the competitive exams to get into New York's elite public high schools. 

The Jiechu School occupies the fourth floor of the building at 98 Mott Street, between the Shanghai Cafe Delux and the Joy Luck Restaurant. Every day after school and on weekends, dozens of children climb a dingy staircase to Jiechu's bright, clean classrooms for homework, special tutoring, or preparation for standardized tests – including the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the three-hour ordeal that alone determines whether eighth-graders will gain admission to New York's handful of specialized high schools, which serve as springboards to elite colleges. 
 
The SHSAT has been the focus of intense public protest since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to abolish the current race-blind, test-only system as a “monumental injustice.” He and others note that black and Hispanic children, though two-thirds of the city’s overall student body, are earning just 10 percent of the places at elite schools like Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech, the city’s three most prestigious.  

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. Top photo: The building housing the Jiechu School in Chinatown.

Asian children, who comprise just 16 percent of the overall school population, have come to dominate admissions to those schools –earning more than 50 percent of the spots overall and 74 percent of the slots at Stuyvesant, the most competitive and prestigious school in the public system. Of the 900 eighth graders admitted to Stuyvesant for next year, 10 are African American, 27 are Hispanic, 151 are white and 613 are Asian.
 
De Blasio has a plan to close this gap: scrap the SHSAT altogether, and offer admission to the specialized high schools to the top 7 percent of all of New York's 600 middle schools instead. The mayor says this will increase the black and Hispanic population to about 45 percent of the total.  

De Blasio hasn't specifically mentioned Asians, whose opportunities would certainly be limited by his plan. But he and city schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza have cast the widespread use of test prep as a symbol of the system's overall “unfairness.”

Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza.

Or, as Carranza has put it, abolishing the SHSAT “should be good news for our poor, our immigrant communities that you're not going to have to spend thousands of dollars on test prep for one test to get an opportunity to go to a specialized school.” 

Nevertheless, some Asian parents have mobilized against his plan. And a closer look at how and why many Asian children outperform others on these standardized tests raises fundamental questions about the difference between hard work and unfair advantage and the meaning of merit in an age of identity politics.  

Those kids climbing the stairs to the Jiechu School illustrate the high importance many Asian families place on preparing their children for admission to selective high schools. And their reliance on test prep – which at a place like Jiechu costs more like hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars – reflects deeper cultural traits and experiences. 

New York is hardly the only place where Asian Americans are disproportionately represented in the best schools. There's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, which is commonly ranked the best public high school in America. Asians represent about 20 percent of the local population and secure about 70 percent of the seats at the school, where admissions are based on test scores plus grades, an essay, and teacher recommendations. 

Asians now account for 20 to 25 percent of undergraduates at Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, four to five times their representation in the general population. Advocacy groups cite strong evidence those figures are held down by unofficial anti-Asian quotas at those schools. That claim is at the center of a discrimination lawsuit brought against Harvard by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, now underway in federal court in Boston. 

Students head to class at Stuyvesant High School. 

Do these Asian students have an unfair advantage because their affluent parents can afford to pay for expensive test prep, as Mayor de Blasio has suggested?  At Stuyvesant, as critics of the de Blasio plan have pointed out, 46 percent of students qualify for free or subsidized lunches, a common measure of very modest financial circumstances. Many of the Asian families whose children go to Stuyvesant and the other specialized schools are poor. Many of them are immigrants, or the first people in their families to be born in the United States. Many of them live in households where English isn't spoken. They are not children of privilege gaming the system, but newcomers working to realize the American dream.

So how is it that they are outperforming other groups, including whites?  Some of their success is commonly attributed to what's come to be called the “tiger mom” phenomenon, after the book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Yale law professor Amy Chua, which portrays Asian parents as extremely, perhaps excessively, insistent on hard work at the expense of play.  
 
But in addition to pushing their children,  China- and Korean-born parents, according to the "tiger mom" theory,  sacrifice their own immediate needs to provide their kids with the resources they need to succeed. That's why many immigrated to the United States in the first place. Or, as the writer Kay Hymowitz put it in City Journal, among the first two words that poor Chinese immigrants are likely to know when they arrive in the U.S. are “Harvard” and “Stuyvesant.” Getting in to those schools is the Holy Grail, and they are ready to make whatever sacrifice they deem necessary to obtain it. 

In many ways  today's Asian parents are following the pattern set by other immigrant groups before them – using the specialized high schools as a first giant step toward success in American life. Fourteen Nobel Prize winners are graduates of Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Tech. Among many luminaries, graduates of those schools include the writer Gary Shteyngart, the actor Tim Robbins, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the political consultant David Axelrod.  

“I'm hoping for Stuyvesant,” said one eighth grader, emerging from an SHSAT prep class at the Jiechu School one recent Saturday. Asked why, the student, who gave his name as Kevin, said: “Practically everybody I know is hoping to get into Stuyvesant.”

Nevertheless, Asian immigrants do enjoy one special advantage: an intimate familiarity with what might be called the test culture. In their native countries, high-stakes standardized tests and assiduous, long-term, almost obsessive preparation for them are part of the national culture. 

Testing venue in China for the gaokao

In China today, the test is known as the gaokao, or the high exam. It's a national ritual, a rite of passage. Every year tens of millions of high school seniors take the gaokao following years of preparation. Only the highest scorers will be admitted to the most prestigious institutions, like Peking University or Qinghua University in Beijing, or Fudan University in Shanghai. Similar tests also exist for entry to special elementary schools and middle schools. Chinese kids, in other words, take these tests starting when they are about 6 years old, and Chinese parents send them to special schools, tutors and coaches to prepare for them. 

Moreover, the test system, especially the gaokao, is a continuation of a practice that goes back, literally, thousands of years in China. During the imperial dynasties that ruled the country for centuries, government officials were chosen by an elaborate system of local, provincial, and national tests, based on a mastery of Confucian literature and philosophy. (While today's gaokao is taken by both men and women, the old imperial exams were for males only.) For various and predictable reasons, the sons of well-off families tended to do better.  

Monument at Harvard presented by Chinese graduates in 1936.

But Chinese history is filled with lore of exceptionally bright poor boys from small villages who passed the exams, bringing glory to their families and home towns. Sometimes, according to these stories, the whole village would contribute to what would now be called the young man's test prep. It's the Chinese equivalent of the American Horatio Alger legend, the born-in-a-log-cabin, rags-to-riches story. And today in New York, when the daughter of a nail salon worker and a restaurant dishwasher living in two cramped rooms in Chinatown gets into Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, she is in a sense reincarnating both the American and the Chinese dreams. 
 
Taiwan has a similar exam system. So does South Korea, where the country almost closes down on the day of the eight-hour suneung, or College Scholastic Ability Test, which is not the only way for a high school senior to get into a university, but is the most common and accepted way. South Korea has a similar historical tradition to China’s, going back to the 10th century, when the Koryo Dynasty instituted a national system of examinations for entrance into the civil service. Then, as now, candidates would spend a long period of what many Westerners would consider brutal preparation. As Anna Diamond described it in The Atlantic a couple of years ago, the typical day for a South Korean 10th grader today consists of 10 hours of school followed by mandatory study hall after dinner.  

These practices have their critics, including many inside the countries that follow them, who contend that the mandatory exams stress rote learning, memorization, and obedience to authority, rather than creative or critical thinking. The pressure on students in countries like China and South Korea is intense. It is cited as a reason for the high suicide rate among South Korean teenagers in particular. South Korean families also spend large sums sending their children to dreary cram schools. Ditto China, where the schools are known as buxiban, or supplementary class. 

In a way, the Jiechu School on Mott Street in New York's Chinatown is a buxiban. In fact, it calls itself an “English-math buxiban.” 
 
For the most part, wealthy families who can afford private tutoring for their kids at $150 or more an hour, generally don't send their kids to the Jiechu School for help on the SHSAT. It serves families of modest means, especially recent immigrants, many of them from Fujian province, who constitute the lowest socio-economic layer of the Chinese-American population.

For them, Jiechu's price – $650 for a seven-week summer course, four hours a day, Monday to Friday – is a doable stretch. That comes to a bit less than $5 an hour, which is not exactly the “thousands of dollars in test prep” that Mr. Carranza cited. Other schools are somewhat more expensive, running at about $1,400 for seven-week summer sessions. 

The Jiechu School (which calls itself Nationwide Master in English) feels like most public schools, with colorful decorations and exhortatory messages – “There is no elevator to success,” reads one, “You have to take the stairs.” On a recent Saturday morning, two classrooms were devoted to SHSAT prep, each with about 20 students and one teacher. From the visual evidence, only one of the students was not Asian, though Toby Lee, the school principal, said that from time to time there are black and Hispanic kids attending classes. Corridor walls are decorated with posters displaying the names of graduates of previous classes. 

“This one Stuyvesant,” Lee said, pointing at a name. “Stuyvesant, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science,” he continued, pointing at three more names on a poster showing members of the graduating class of 2015. 

The New York Times reported last October that the majority of the 411 test prep centers then operating in New York were concentrated in the city's several Asian enclaves – Chinatown in Manhattan; Flushing, Queens; and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. There are so many of them in fact that Mr. Lee says that attendance at Jiechu has gone down in recent years. 

“Ten years ago – full,” he said. “Now so much competition. Schools everywhere.” Lee, who is 86 years old and from Taiwan, maintained that Jiechu suffers a loss of several thousand dollars a year, but he is able to stay in business thanks to contributions from a charitable association. “I do this because I love the children,” he said. 
 
 

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