My Test Score Didn’t Show What I Could Achieve

The Discovery Program is one step toward making New York City’s high school admissions process more equitable.

by Richard Zhao

Mche Lee, Unsplash

The snow was piling up outside the school window, almost as fast as the anxiety building up in my stomach. After what seemed like hours of waiting, I was called down to the guidance counselor’s office to receive my results for the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT).

Brooklyn Technical High School, one of New York City’s nine specialized high schools, was my dream school. From the wide range of majors allowing students to explore their interests and extracurricular opportunities, to the large Asian school community, I thought it was my best shot at climbing the socioeconomic ladder for my family. Not only have many alumni gained acceptance into prestigious universities, but the school also offers lots of college courses.

However, first I had to pass the SHSAT. I could hope all I want, but if I did not have the score to get in, the dream would stay a dream.

For My Family

My parents are immigrants and my mother hoped for someone in our immediate family to justify our move to the United States. Like other immigrant parents, mine upended their lives so that I could get a top notch education here. No one in my family has ever even attended high school.

Having emigrated from China with little money or knowledge of English, my parents were forced to settle for below minimum wage jobs to keep food on the table. They worked as food vendors, standing for 14 hours in unpredictable weather to support us. They invested whatever spare time and money they had in prep courses to ensure that I would get into Brooklyn Tech.

That was a lot to put on a 13-year-old. I felt as if the entire future of the family depended on this one moment.

As I was waiting outside the art room for my results, I started running out of hope. In spite of five years of courses and studying, the SHSAT was one of the hardest exams I had ever taken and I thought my score was a dud.

Lanterns hung from the ceiling and paper-mache-sculpted balloons made the room radiate with a sense of light and peace—something I feared I would not feel after opening my admission letter in front of both my mother and guidance counselor.

A Jarring Setback

When they finally called me in and I sat down across from my guidance counselor, I could not stop my hands from trembling. In an attempt to calm my nerves, my mother who was sitting next to me, placed her hands on mine. “Do not worry. Everything will be alright,” she said.

I could see right through her. She was anxious, too. I saw the letter on the desk in front of me.          

Specialized High School: None.

            Score: 477

In just a few words, my dreams were crushed. Brooklyn Tech was my top and only choice. The cutoff score was 507. My jaw was agape and I glanced over to my mother. “So…not specialized?” she whispered to me, trying her hardest to keep her disappointment hidden. My mother locked her lips and let out a deep sigh, but after seeing me on the verge of tears, she quickly placed her hands on my shoulders and smiled.

In spite of five years of courses and studying, the SHSAT was one of the hardest exams I had ever taken and I thought my score was a dud.

I normally would have been relieved that my mom did not yell at me, but now, I felt like the greatest failure. By her facial expressions, I had this immense feeling in my gut that I had just botched my one ticket to success and worse, would never be able to talk to my mother again because I had disappointed her.

I was expected to set the standard for my two younger siblings and make my parents’ backbreaking work to pay for the prep courses worthwhile. Instead, I felt I had not only let down my parents but also myself.

Just as bad, the thought of showing up the next day, head down, dreams shattered, and having to tell my friends I wasn’t as smart as they thought I was—as I thought I was—seemed like hell.

Instead of admitting that I had a substandard score, I lied to my friends, saying all my studying paid off and I got a good enough score to get in, but wasn’t sure of where I’d go yet. I then immediately shifted the conversation to a different topic.

It seemed like wherever I turned, though, I couldn’t escape it. People were posting their high school acceptances all over their Instagram stories. As soon as I clicked my messages app on my phone, dozens of people were asking me: “What school did you get into?” Every time I got a notification, I felt something boil up in me. Was it anger? Shame? Or was it jealousy? Not knowing how to respond to the constant questions, I put my phone on “do not disturb.”

A Second Chance

A few days later, just as I was trying to figure out what my next steps were, my social studies teacher pulled me aside and said, “Your guidance counselor wants to see you.” Why? Am I in trouble? I thought.

She gestured for me to sit down while holding a letter. “Richard, this letter is for you and it came from the Department of Education. You can open it here if you want.”

I opened it. “Welcome to Brooklyn Technical High School Discovery Program.”

Richard Zhao

I immediately got out of my chair and threw the letter on the floor. I picked it up and read it again. It couldn’t be. Was this my second chance? I was ecstatic. When I got home I showed the letter to my parents, who couldn’t believe I had another opportunity. They didn’t know what the program entailed, only that I might now fulfill their educational dreams for me.

The Discovery Program provides low-income, high-achieving students who have scored below the admissions cutoff a summer course held by one of the specialized high schools for a second shot at the school. Those who do well in the summer course are then admitted to their respective high school.

I thought I would be labeled by my peers as unqualified and undeserving of a spot in the school. I worried about being perceived as someone who needed assistance to get in. But those thoughts didn’t stop me from taking the program.

Fortunately, I did well enough to be accepted to Brooklyn Tech. To my surprise, no one at my new school asked, “Did you go through Discovery?” When I eventually slipped one day and told my friends I had gone through the program, they didn’t care. I had done all that worrying for nothing. 

Although I am about to enter my senior year and doing well at Brooklyn Tech, I don’t think my eligibility for getting into any school should be based on one test. In fact, I excel in community leadership and have started my own organization to raise awareness about racism and hate crimes. I get good grades and am an excellent writer, which is how I got accepted to write for YouthComm Magazine. As I learned in a recent interview with Schools Chancellor Porter, “I think there are students who are so gifted and talented in so many different ways” and that should be the criteria for how we view specialized high school admittance.

Discussion Questions

1. Since young, Richard knew that getting into Brooklyn Tech was not only something he wanted but a way to honor his family’s sacrifices. As a young person, what are the pressures that Richard had to carry in response to his family dream for him?
2. The Discovery Program gave Richard a “Second Chance” to get into Brooklyn Tech, but also made him feel like he would be labeled as “unqualified” by his peers. If you were his peer, what advice would you give Richard to remind him that he deserves his spot and is more than qualified to be in Brooklyn Tech?  
3. After reflecting, Richard realizes that he is doing well as a senior at Brooklyn Tech, and that he has more to offer than just his test scores. How did these scores not reflect Richard as a whole person, and what did they leave out?

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