Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them . . . John Adams, Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1780.

Each year New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High School admits on the basis of the Specialized High School Admissions Test nearly 1,000 ninth grade students, fewer than 10 of whom are Black, about 10 percent from the Black and Hispanic groups combined.  

The SHSAT, essentially a math test, violates a cardinal principle of test design:  It is not aligned with the New York City Mathematics curriculum (or even with the rest of the city’s curricula). Also, no one really passes it because admitting schools determine who can get in without so much as a set cut score, and its purpose since the passage of the Hecht-Calandra Act in 1971 is for discrimination and exclusion, a point previously made on these pages.

However, its annual results are effective in drawing attention to the inequities in the opportunity to learn across the city’s neighborhoods and among its racial and ethnic groups of students.

New York State’s Mathematics Assessment at grade 8, when the SHSAT is given, allocates student performance in four categories:  Levels 1 to 4. It is reasonable to assume that students scoring at Level 4 would be well-qualified for attempting the further hurdle of the specialized high school test if that test were aligned with the curriculum they had studied. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that was in fact the case.  We can then look at the opportunity available to students in New York City to learn Mathematics to that level. 

The inequitable distribution across the city of opportunities to learn Mathematics, as well as other subjects, is an institutional barrier to educational achievement for many of the city’s children. It would be unacceptable if the quality of water or electricity differed dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood in New York City.  All the more unacceptable is it that the quality of education provided by the city schools differs, as it does, so dramatically from one neighborhood to the next from one racial or ethnic group to the next.  As John Adams wrote, it is the duty of civic officials to “cherish” education everywhere, not only in certain privileged groups and neighborhoods.

City-wide, 44 percent of Asian students, 29 percent of White students, 10 percent of Hispanic students and only 8 percent of Black/African American students reach Level 4 in Mathematics in grade 8. Why are there those differences in achievement? Is it a matter of cultural differences? That is often suggested, but it is unlikely, as, for one thing, these commonly used racial and ethnic categories are misleadingly homogenized.

If we examine the group most commonly the locus of the cultural difference argument, there are between two and three times as many Chinese as Asian Indian residents of the city; 70,700 Chinese students k-12 compared with 36,000 Asian Indian k-12 students (and only 5,400 Korean children k-12). There are 50,900 Chinese, 24,200 Asian Indian and 12,100 Korean students enrolled in college or graduate school. A third of Chinese adult are without a high school diploma, but only 20 percent of Asian Indian adults are without that minimal qualification and only 8 percent of Korean adults. While just under one-third of Chinese adults in the city have attained a Bachelor’s degree or higher, 44 percent of Asian Indian adults have reached that educational level, as have 55 percent of Korean adults. Median household incomes also vary within the Asian category: from $57,000 for Chinese households, to $68,000 for Korean and $77,000 for Asian Indian households. (The city average is $61,000.)

We therefore find, considering just these three, that “Asian” includes many groups with differing educational needs and resources, varying from the comparatively disadvantaged Chinese residents to the comparatively highly advantaged Asian Indian residents.  No argument about a unified Asian “culture of achievement” seems possible to sustain in the face of these differences.

If not culture, what? For one thing, differences in family resources are well-known to have an effect on individual student educational opportunities. Parental educational attainment strongly affects student achievement in the absence of a public school system fit for purpose.

Just 5 percent of students whose parents did not finish high school reached the “Advanced” level on the grade 8 Mathematics Assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That’s roughly equivalent to New York Level 4, as did 12 percent of grade 8 students whose parents graduated from college. Household income is another well-known factor affecting student educational achievement in the absence of an equitable public schools system. According to NAEP, only 6 percent of New York grade 8 students who are eligible for the National Lunch program score at the Advanced level in Mathematics; 15 percent of those not eligible, those from more prosperous families, test at the Advanced level in grade 8 Mathematics. (National School Lunch Program eligibility is based on family income.) 

A student eligible for the National Lunch Program, whose parents did not graduate from high school, or whose parents only graduated from high school, is at a compounded disadvantage in relation to a student from a more prosperous family of college graduates.  Why is that?  College educated parents are likely to encourage and expect educational achievement from their children and advocate for high standards of instruction in their children’s schools, provide extra-curricular educational opportunities at home or elsewhere and those with higher incomes can afford other supplementary educational opportunities for their children (including expensive tutoring for the SHSAT). On the basis of parental educational levels and family income Asian Indian and Korean students have an advantage over Chinese students within the Asian category.  This, again, in the absence of a public school system that sets its goal at a standard for all students, not just the fortunate.

“Hispanic,” similarly, is a heterogeneous category, including 700,000 Puerto Ricans and 700,000 Dominicans, 162,000 residents of Mexican origin and many other groups among the 2.5 million Hispanic residents of the city.  Just 18 percent of Hispanic adults in New York City have attained a Bachelor’s degree or higher: fewer in the Puerto Rican and Dominican and Central American groups, only 9 percent among adults of Mexican origin. Median household income for Hispanics is $42,000. 

Black residents of the city are also a varied group.  For example, nearly 200,000 Black residents of New York City are from Jamaica, others from other Latin American countries, still others from Africa. New Yorkers of Jamaican origin have a median household income of $59,490 and a 22 percent rate of college graduation. Overall Black adult education attainment, Bachelor’s degree and higher, is 25 percent and median Black household income is $45,000.

Compare to White, non-Hispanic, educational attainment, Bachelor’s degree and higher, which is 51 percent. Median White household income is $81,000. As with the others, New York’s White, non-Hispanic, population is mixed: 930,000 of White residents are foreign-born:  half from Europe, more than one-third from Latin America.  Forty percent of foreign-born White, non-Hispanic, New Yorkers speak a language other than English in the home.

Poverty rates also contribute to inequities in home and extra-curricular educational opportunities:  20 percent of Asian Indian and Chinese and only 6 percent of Korean children under 18 live in poverty compared with 30 percent of Black and 33 percent of Hispanic children, making it all the more difficult for the families of the latter to compensate for the inadequacies of the public schools their children attend. The home resource education advantage of White, non-Hispanic, children in New York over Hispanic children is 33 percent in educational attainment and $39,000 in median household income, over Black children 26 percent and $36,000. The advantage of Asian Indian children over Black children is close: 19 percent in parental educational attainment and $32,000 in median household income.  Chinese and Korean children also have considerable advantages in household income and adult educational attainment over average Black and Hispanic children. 

There is no need to resort to cultural issues for explanations of the lack of equal educational achievement in New York City.

The argument here is that these city-wide differences in average racial and ethnic family resources should be factored in when calculating the educational resources necessary to achieve equity in opportunity.

The inequities in educational opportunities in New York City are made much worse, because the educational opportunities of students in New York vary by race/ethnicity within, as well as between, neighborhoods. The city has 32 Geographic School Districts across its five boroughs.  The percentages of students taught well enough to reach Level 4 in grade 8 Mathematics varies by district, that is, by neighborhood, from 3 percent to ten times that.  A random student in District 5 could increase the likelihood of reaching Level 4 nearly five-fold through the simple expedient of moving across 122nd Street to District 3.  Or, to put it another way, a given student in Community School District 3 would see her chances of becoming “proficient” in Mathematics reduced from 14 percent to 3 percent if she happened to move a block into District 3. This situation is by no means unique to Districts 3 and 5.  There are even more dramatic examples elsewhere in the city.

Neighborhood school district results by race and ethnicity show wide variations from the city-wide averages. Considered by district, Asian Level 4 Mathematics percentages range from 10 percent to 57 percent; White student Proficiency percentages range from 5 percent to 55 percent; Hispanics from 2 percent to 19 percent and Black Level 4 Proficiency percentages range among districts from 1 percent to 15 percent.  There is, then, an overlap in the 10 percent-15 percent range of outcomes for all students. In other words, it appears that student performance changes with variations in the opportunity to learn provided by the schools in their district, exacerbated by racial and ethnic variations in such factors as parental income and educational attainment.  For example, a Black student in Districts 20 or 17 has a better chance of being taught Mathematics to Level 4 than an Asian student in District 27.  A Hispanic student in District 21 has a better chance of being taught Mathematics to Level 4 than a White, non-Hispanic student in District 13.  Some of New York’s neighborhood Districts provide better instruction to all students, without regard to race, ethnicity and parental factors.  Others provide inadequate opportunities to learn for all their students. Most Black and Hispanic students are in those districts.

Furthermore, even if there were equal provision of education resources in the schools, Asian Indian students in New York City would have a large advantage based on parental education level alone and an additional advantage based on their relatively high median household income, followed by White, Korean and Chinese students, in this manner having a wider range of opportunities than Hispanic and Black students.  This appears to be borne out based on New York State Mathematics tests and the SHSAT results.

It is invidious to shrug and attribute student education outcomes to what has been called “pre-conception I.Q.,” the ability to choose wealthy or highly educated parents.  It is the duty of the schools to ensure that the outcomes of education are not simply an artifact of where students began.  And it is the duty of “magistrates and legislatures” to allocate resources where they are needed in order to support educators in that endeavor, not least because, especially today, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”