The gap in opportunities for different races in America remains extreme. Nowhere is this more evident than our nation’s top public schools. In New York City, where blacks and Hispanics make up 70% of the city’s school-aged population, they represent less than 5% at the city’s most elite public high schools. Meanwhile, Asian Americans make up as much as 73%. In Curtis Chin’s documentary, Tested, we follow a dozen racially and socioeconomically diverse 8th graders as they fight for a seat at one of these schools. Their only way in: to ace a single standardized test.
The Big Three
In New York City, there are three elite math and science schools known as the “Big Three” — Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. These schools, called specialized high schools, have a 99% graduation rate and a stellar list of accomplished alumni, some even famous. However, the only way to get in is to take a single standardized test.
High Stakes Testing
For poor and immigrant families, getting their child into one of these schools can change their lives. In the documentary, several mothers share their anxieties. ANA, a Dominican single mother, says that scoring high enough on this test is the only way for her son to go to a good school.
The Hope of a Better Future
The film then introduces a diverse set of 8th graders. It’s late summer; all are looking forward to their final year of middle school and moving on to high school. We film them at home and in their neighborhoods, as well as their schools and prep programs.
While the kids come from different racial, socioeconomic, religious backgrounds and neighborhoods, they share one thing in common. They have hopes of bettering their lives by getting into one of these elite public schools.
Most students offered a seat at a specialized high school come from 5% of the middle schools in the city. In our next animation, we see the shocking statistics. In a school system that is 68% black and Hispanic, at the Big Three, they represent only 11%. Meanwhile, Asian Americans, who are 15% of the system, are 65% of these schools. Whites also are overrepresented at 21%. This imbalance has led the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund’s to file a legal complaint with the US Department of Justice.
The Big Day
Tested follows the students for the next three months as they inch their way to the big test weekend. The clock keeps ticking, and the filmmakers check in with them and their families at four weeks out, then two, then one week till the test, and, finally, the big day. All of our students cope with the stress of juggling test prep along with schoolwork.
The film concludes in the spring as students find out their test results and learn where they will attend high school. It’s a mixed bag of emotions. Some are thrilled; others, deflated. Some have multiple offers. One receives none at all. (No spoilers here.)
Tested reveals the inner workings of perhaps the most competitive high school admission system in the country. The stories of the 8th graders that are highlighted in the film show the glaring racial stereotypes, inequality with access to good public education, and the myth of the model minority myth.
Curtis Chin has written for ABC, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon, and won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the San Diego Asian American Film Foundation.
As a community activist, he co-founded the Asian American Writers Workshop and Asian Pacific Americans for Progress. His first film, Vincent Who? has screened at nearly 400 colleges, NGOs and corporations in four countries.
Curtis is currently a Visiting Scholar at NYU.