By Prem Calvin Prashad
A month after the results of the Specialized High School Admission Test, the momentum to reform the examination continues to build. As only marginal numbers of African Americans and Hispanics gain admission to the city’s most selective high schools, a lawsuit headed by the NAACP, as well as comments from elected officials, have cast a spotlight on the test and test prep centers, many of which serve Queens neighborhoods.
Unlike conventional test prep providers, such as Kaplan or the Princeton Review, local test prep centers tend to serve low-income immigrant communities in Flushing, Jackson Heights, Astoria and greater Jamaica. The cost of this prep is significantly lower and fills a test preparation gap between the quality of the borough’s junior high schools and free city test prep alternatives, such as the Specialized High School Institute.
Discussed alternatives have included a mostly holistic approach to admission, similar to the screening process at other top city schools. An alternative proposal from the Bronx borough president’s office suggested blanket admission to the top 10 percent of students in that borough, claiming that the disparity in admissions from that borough correlated with a lack of affordable prep providers.
Though not yet addressed by the de Blasio administration, the racial disparity in these schools was a point of contention during last year’s mayoral campaign. About 26,000 students took the test in 2013 and fewer than 6,000 of the top scorers were admitted, regardless of race or gender.
Earlier this year, in an address to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew assailed the inequity of admissions, noting that the nine specialized high schools “have become the province of students whose families can afford to pay for intensive test-prep courses aimed at increasing their child’s score on the specialized exam.”
Test prep centers, nominally a flashpoint for test opponents, have served as a pipeline to the city’s top schools, and centers such as Khan’s Tutorial is no exception, with 1,625 students gaining admission through test prep over the past 20 years. According to the center, 7 percent to 9 percent of the student body at the three largest specialized high schools are linked to Khan’s Tutorial.
This year boasts a record 185 student cohort from Khan’s, including 33 to Stuyvesant, 53 to Bronx Science and 63 to Brooklyn Technical HS.
I spoke with Dr. Ivan Khan, president of Khan’s Tutorial, about the fairness of the SHSAT, the impact his centers have had on the South Asian community and the future of testing as a form of admission.
Khan’s Tutorial was founded by Khan’s father, Dr. Mansur Khan, in 1994. There are now nine locations in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, five of which are in Queens.
Though Khan notes that in spite of the rise in South Asian students at these schools who are the products of his program, he also notes that ultimately “heavy parental involvement, increased awareness by community leaders and a strong foundation from strong junior high schools” are contributing factors in determining a child’s chances for admission.
Khan is not in favor of dropping the test as a standard of admission, noting that there are a number of high schools, such as Townsend Harris in Flushing, that consider grades, essays and additional criteria in lieu of an examination for admission.
As part of the organization’s overarching outreach to parents, Khan’s Tutorial attempts to increase awareness among parents of the alternatives to the nine Specialized High Schools.
Of Khan’s Tutorial’s 185 acceptances, just 13 are black, Hispanic or West Indian students. In hopes of reaching these communities, the center recently launched the Opportunity Scholarship, selecting two students from each of the center’s nine locations for test prep and mentoring.
“We look forward to increasing awareness about our program so there is increased awareness from underrepresented communities about our work with low-income New York City junior high school students,” Khan said.
To celebrate the achievements of the 185 students accepted to these schools, Khan’s Tutorial honors these students with an annual banquet, held this year April 5, at Maurya Banquet Hall & Restaurant, at 63-108 Woodhaven Blvd. in Rego Park.
The event, for the students and their parents, recognizes the achievement of the students as well as the various managers, tutors and other staff who work at the testing centers. At the event, Khan’s Tutorial students Justin Jairam, Joshua Omelede and Ibnul Jahan won individual awards for outstanding achievement, with Jahan breaking the 700 mark on the exam.
To learn more about Khan’s Tutorial, visit khanstutorial.com.