Abacus4As a 1986 graduate of Hunter College High School, I read with great interest Sharon Otterman’s Times article today, Diversity Debate Convulses Elite High School.

Hunter High School’s exclusive “Hunter Test” is its sole admissions criteria.  Since this is 21st Century New York City, a huge industry of Hunter test prep classes, tutors, and books have arisen to help students get in.  Elementary school kids, who might once have spent their evenings and weekends playing or relaxing, now often spend it in cram school preparing for this super high stakes Hunter exam.

Otterman writes:

As has happened at other prestigious city high schools that use only a test for admission, the black and Hispanic population at Hunter has fallen in recent years. In 1995, the entering seventh-grade class was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic, according to state data. This past year, it was 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic; the balance was 47 percent Asian and 41 percent white, with the other 8 percent of students identifying themselves as multiracial. The public school system as a whole is 70 percent black and Hispanic.

For decades, we Hunter graduates have been congratulating ourselves on our supposed giftedness. Now, just as the admissions requirements for the city’s G & T programs have fallen under public scrutiny, so have Hunter’s, and for the same reason.

Apparently, in an effort to increase diversity and maybe as a swipe at the test prep culture, Hunter teachers have recommended broadening admissions criteria to other factors like grades, interviews, and portfolios.  (That sounds like private school admissions.)  Excitingly, a student, senior Justin Hudson, gave a graduation speech that was anything but the typical cliches of the genre.  Bravely, subversively, he said:

They <Hunter students> had been labeled “gifted,” he told them, based on a test they passed “due to luck and circumstance.” Beneficiaries of advantages, they were disproportionately from middle-class Asian and white neighborhoods known for good schools and the prevalence of tutoring.

“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city,” he said, “then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights. And I refuse to accept that.”

Whether for kindergarten, middle school, or high school, the test prep culture has grown as more and more students compete for a limited number of elite places in public and private schools.  Now we are seeing a backlash as people question standards.  Who is worthy to be chosen?  Pandora’s box is open, and this will be a continuing and expanding debate.