Documentary explores inequality in New York schools

Hannah Collings – Staff Writer

CLARION, Pa.- Curtis Chen’s 2016 documentary Tested details how black and Hispanic students from low socioeconomic backgrounds struggle for equality in the New York City high school system.

Thursday in Hart Chapel, the MLK committee screened Curtis Chen’s 2016 documentary.

New York middle school students do not go to high schools based on their district. They browse high school choices from a catalog of more than 400, go to open houses and apply to their top choices.

In NewYork City, Tested claims, there are good schools and there are bad schools, but none in-between.

Throughout the documentary, Chen follows 12 eighth graders from multiple races as they prepare for the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). These students all had their sights set on getting into one of the “big three” specialized schools in NYC, Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Technical High School and Staten Island Technical High School.

Any student who wishes to  be accepted into a specialized, or magnet, school in New York City must do well on the single entrance exam, the 95-question, 2.5 hour math- and English-based SHSAT.

Many students who take the SHSAT feel that this single test could determine their entire future.

The students and parents in Tested believe that getting accepted by one of the “big three” schools will improve their chances at being accepted to a good college, which will in turn help them land a better job.

The parents of the students in Tested push them to be diligent in their studies. They want their children to have an easier life than they have had and will be able to rise above their current circumstances of poverty.

Of 1.1 million high school students in the city, 70 percent are black or Hispanic. In  the specialized schools, these minority groups make up only 5 percent of the student body.  Over 70 percent of students at specialized schools are Asian American.

In the Asian American community in New York City, there is an emphasis on high academic achievement. Some parents enroll their children in test preparation courses as young as kindergarten.

Even though many Asian American families in  the city are impoverished, some spend up to one fifth of their income on their students’ extracurricular test-prep courses.

There is much less awareness of SHSAT preparation in low socioeconomic black and Hispanic communities.

There is more funding allocated to gifted and talented programs in communities of higher socioeconomic statues, Chen said during a question-and-answer session after the screening.

Liz Pelesko / The Clarion Call
Curtis Chen talks about his documentary Tested as part of the MLK series on campus.

Chen  said there may be more students with the intelligence to score well on the SHSAT, but they are not aware of it or have not had the appropriate training because they attend a middle school with poor funding.

Because there is less of a focus on gifted and talented education in these communities, being dedicated to academics may single out students as oddities.

Many of the students preparing for the SHSAT in Tested admit that they do not feel like they fit in with their friends.

Those who focus on doing well on the SHSAT have a focus on their future. Many of their peers are concerned with going to the same high school as their friends, but those studying for the test believe their entire future could be on the line.

Chen filmed Tested to bring awareness to the discrepancies of opportunity between wealthy and non-wealthy communities. Tested claims that the racial segregation prevalent in New York high schools is not due to intelligence, but economics.

Chen has traveled with his film to  more than 100 showings in eight countries.

He is now working on a documentary exploring the intersection between the fight for gay and lesbian rights and that of civil rights.

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