On Thursday, Sept. 24, students and faculty members gathered in the Powell Family Cinema for a screening of Curtis Chin’s newly-completed documentary, “Tested.” The film focuses on a group of 12 eighth-grade students of diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds as they prepare for the New York City Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT). It explores inequality as well as the myth of the model minority as they relate to the SHSAT and specialized high schools in New York City.
Performing well on the exam, for many, is seen as a way out of poverty and the first step on a path to a good college, a good job, and a good life. The test determines students’ admissions status to one of eight elite public schools: The Bronx High School of Science; Brooklyn Technical School; Brooklyn Latin School; Stuyvesant High School; High School for Math, Science, and Engineering at City College; High School for American Studies at Lehman College; Queens High School for the Sciences at York College; and Staten Island Technical High School.
“We try to do the best with the exam for the specialized high schools because that’s the only chance we have to move on and go to the good schools,” said a parent in the documentary.
According to the film, 70 percent of New York City’s school-age residents are black and Hispanic. However, of the city’s top high schools, the ones to which students gain entry by scoring highly on the SHSAT, only five percent of students are black and Hispanic and up to 73 percent are Asian-American. Chin came across an article in The New York Times that questioned the percentage of Asian-American students in these eight schools.
“So, when I read this article in the New York Times, about this system and particularly [how] they were focusing on these Asian families [who] were trying to get into these schools, and about how the NAACP were gaming the system, I just thought that was not a fair, accurate understanding of what was going on in these communities and why it was so important to put so many different eggs in this one basket of education,” he said. “So that’s when I decided that I wanted to make this film.”
Chin became determined to portray how a cross-section of students aims to use education to propel itself to a life out of poverty.
“In doing the research for the film and meeting more families—not just Asian families—I realized that… if I were to only make an Asian-American film, I would be guilty of what I think [as] only caring about yourself and your own community,” he said. “I realized that the only way public education is going to be improved in America is if everybody works together.”
Chin’s personal experiences with public education also fed his interest in this topic.
“I am a product of public education, starting in Detroit and the suburbs around Detroit and ultimately moving to Ann Arbor,” he said. “I grew up in a very tight-knit family. We didn’t have much. We ran a Chinese restaurant where I grew up. But, throughout all that, my parents always stressed studying, education, working hard.”
The facilitators of the discussion, Tedra James ’18 and Jennie He ’16, did not respond to requests for comment.
A question-and-answer session followed the film. One student asked Chin’s opinion on community schools, and their value compared to specialized high schools.
Chin replied by addressing a major problem surrounding community schools: Poor reputations generally keep top students away from community schools and instead lead to their fighting to get into a few select, highly-regarded schools.
“Part of the problem is that people perceive that the neighborhood schools all suck, and that’s why there’s this mad rush to get into these schools,” he said. “I think if there were better neighborhood schools, you wouldn’t have all this anxiety amongst these people to compete for them. These schools aren’t for everybody; these are math and science schools. I always say that I wouldn’t have tried to go to these schools; I would have applied to the writing schools.”
Other topics addressed at the question-and-answer session included those relating to inequality in middle schools and test preparation resources. One student sparked a debate regarding the alleged glorification of the exam and eight schools.
This screening and discussion was part of a 34-day tour across the United States and Europe. The documentary is not currently released in theaters, but is available for purchase on the film’s website.