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Q&A: The filmmaker who followed 12 NYC eighth-graders vying for seats in top high schools

While the exam to get into one of New York City’s top high schools is at center of a heated debate about school diversity, it has a more practical meaning for thousands of eighth-graders every year.

For them, the test means giving up weekends and weeknights to study and intense pressure from their parents to do well. Then comes the reality, for some, that if they make it to a specialized high school, there might not be many other students who look like them.

In an intimate look at how city families from a range of backgrounds grapple with making sure their children get quality high-school educations, director Curtis Chin’s new documentary “Tested” follows 12 students as they prepare for the Specialized High School Admissions Test.

The pressure on students is clear, whether the parents are immigrants from Bangladesh awaiting positive results with the rest of the family, a Williamsburg artist who awards her daughter with macarons after a post-ballet practice test, or a mother who describes herself as a “Jewish tiger mom” for pushing her twins to perform at the highest level.

About half of the featured students end up getting into one of the eight specialized high schools that rely on the SHSAT, including Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. Many of those eighth-graders, who are now high school sophomores, attended the Sunday screening and expressed mixed feelings about whether the schools should look beyond one test.

That single admissions requirement has come under increased scrutiny as the share of black and Hispanic students in those high-performing schools has remained extremely low. Just 12 percent of students admitted into the schools last year were black and Hispanic — though those groups represent nearly 70 percent of eighth-graders.

“Tested” will have another screening at DOC NYC Tuesday afternoon. It will also be shown at the White House on Wednesday.

We sat down with Los Angeles-based director Curtis Chin to talk about what he learned about New York City schools as he made the film. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What prompted you to look into diversity issues at New York City’s specialized high schools and the SHSAT?

As a society, we really channel kids based off of their race, gender and socio-economic background at a very early age.

New York is in a very unique situation. The current admission policy for specialized high schools is a single test, but if you want to incorporate other factors, it’s important to also ask “are those other factors additionally compromised by racism and poverty?”

For instance, advocates of changing the policy have cited a number of different factors that they could incorporate, but all of those other factors seem to be impacted by race and poverty. For instance, attendance figures. Poor kids have a far more difficult time getting to school — not only because of obligations at home, but simple issues of transportation and safety. If you want to talk about adding an interview process, immigrant kids who don’t speak English at home are disadvantaged because they may not have the same vocabulary level or people to practice with at home.

You have to look at each of these different factors and say, “are those actually more challenging?” There’s bias in every factor or potential factor, it’s a question of which biases are you going to accept.

A recent report from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools showed that replacing that SHSAT with a combination of other factors like state test scores, class grades, and attendance wouldn’t increase diversity at specialized high schools in a significant way. The report also noted that more than half of the students admitted to specialized high schools from 2005 to 2013 came from just 5 percent of the city’s middle schools.

How did you find the eighth-grade students to focus on?

We originally had a really wide net of schools that had a good track record and those that didn’t, but we realized that we needed to focus on schools that at least were preparing for the test because all the kids had to have a similar journey.

We went to a handful of schools, but we also went through test-prep centers. In the end, we actually covered 20 kids, but only 12 made it into the film. When you’re making a film about diversity, it’s really important to have a large cross-section of students because you don’t want the one kid from that community to be representative of all those experiences.

What was the most surprising part of the reporting process?

The thing I was most surprised by was how open the families were in terms of sharing their stories. These families, they think about these things. They think about education. They think about wanting to improve their lives, but I don’t think sometimes the people who are making these decisions hear from them as much as they should.

Obviously, the families that were more well-off had different concerns than the families that had limited resources. For the rich families, it oftentimes seemed like it was a question of what choice do they want to make, and being nervous about making the right or wrong choice. There’s a privilege to that. For the poor families, there was less of a feeling of “I hope I make the right choice,” but more of a fear that they wouldn’t have these opportunities.

Part of it is awareness beyond access. There were a lot of communities that were unaware of these tests, what you need to do to prepare for it, or how other families were approaching it.

If more families knew what was involved, they would then be able to ask themselves, “Are these the right schools for my kid? Is this a process we want to go through?”

I actually don’t think these specialized high schools are for everybody, but the point is that every family needs enough information to make that choice for themselves. A lot of rich families decide not to go to the specialized high schools because they think there are better options out there for them, which is valid. But that goes back to being in the situation where they have privilege to make these choices.

The film is scheduled for screenings across the country, and has already been shown internationally. How did you put what is happening in New York City in context of broader education policy?

We had to carve out a niche that is understandable. New York City is a really complicated school system and the idea of choice already is a big surprise to most people, and so one of the biggest challenges in making this film was getting people to understand the New York City public school system.

It’s really a national and international story because the issue of diversity and public resources is something that every country is grappling with. Sometimes people complain that America talks about race too much, but if we are going to truly solve some of these issues about equity and equality, we have no choice but to talk about these things head on. They’re not just going to disappear miraculously. We have to understand the root of these problems, we have to understand how they’re impacting people.