Moontasin's parents have taught her to believe that graduating from one of the city's elite high schools will determine her fate as an adult. “If you get into one of these schools, you’re set for college, you’re set for life,” Moontasin says. She's used to declining friends' invitations to hang out, preferring instead her books and practice exams. “Forget your social life and just study for the test!” Moontasin’s parents say to her.
The Specialized High School Admissions Test, given free of charge by the New York City Department of Education, is the key to getting into the city's top three public high schools—Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School—and five other selective high schools.
So common is the exam for Bangladeshi adolescents that it's become a rite of passage. And parents' desire to see their children score well on the exam has helped an industry to sprout in the city's Bangladeshi enclaves. Moontasin is among the many Bangladeshi children who are present or former students enrolled in test prep classes run by fellow Bangladeshis.
The challenging test, known as the “Sci-Hi” exam for short, consists of a math and verbal sections. More than 27,000 kids took the test last fall. Only about one in five students wins admission to the specialized high schools. Asians and South Asians were 57 percent of the students who learned in February that they've been admitted to one of the eight competitive specialized high schools.
New York City Bangladeshis, numbering over 28,000, were the fastest growing Asian-American subgroup in the United States during the 1990s—the population grew 471 percent over those years, and New York City is home to the largest group of Bangladeshis in the United States. Ninety-four percent of Bangladeshi school-age kids attend public schools versus 79 percent of all city children.
The city's Department of Education offers free prep classes for economically disadvantaged students. But many immigrant families pay for private test prep classes despite having incomes that in many cases are low: In the case of Bangladeshis, their per capita income in New York City was reported in the last census as $10,479—less than half of the citywide figure of $22,402. Mostly by word of mouth over the years, the Bangladeshi community of New York City picked up on the importance of these schools, valued by previous generations of working class immigrants as a stepping stone to American mainstream.
Moontasin's parents pay $75 for each weekend session to help her prepare for the rigorous exam.
Nahian Jahangir went through the arduous process of preparing for the test three years ago, and says it was all worth it. He was accepted at Bronx Science after studying at tutoring centers to prepare. "I had to get in no matter what," says Nahian. "It would be like an escalator to get into a good college," he says. Nahian would like to attend NYU so he can stay close to home after graduating and is thinking about becoming a doctor.
According to Community Board 3, which covers Jackson Heights, Bangladeshis are about one quarter of the neighborhood’s population. Stepping into the bustling enclave of 73rd and 74th Streets between 35th and 37th Avenues in Jackson Heights, one enters a universe of South Asian culture: exotic spicy foods, intricate gold jewelry and Bollywood music. Something else of note is the slew of test-prep businesses that have sprouted. There are at least six such businesses on one block of 73rd Street.
“Bangladeshis like the prestige of these schools,” says Santanu Barua. He is the owner of a school nestled in the basement of a shopping complex called “Bangladesh Plaza.” Barua, 36, established Core Tutoring Center in 2004. He employs college students to tutor youngsters in all grades, and he teaches Sci-Hi classes. Barua immigrated to the United States in 1994 from Bangladesh and finished his degree in computer science and accounting. He has no background as an educator—he works in a bank in the day—but considers himself qualified enough to teach some classes.
His students are mostly Bangladeshis but he has a few Pakistani, Indian, Filipino and Latino students. On one weekday, seven youngsters fill a tiny classroom and dutifully listen to their instructor, a young woman who will soon take her MCAT exam for medical school.
Iqbal Zaman says that test prep centers are part of Bangladeshi culture. A math lecturer at LaGuardia Community College, Zaman started his tutoring business, Tutorial One, in 2005. The sole instructor at his school, Zaman started the center to help his community but also acknowledges that he intends to benefit financially as business increases. “It’s good enough, it could be better,” he says of his profits. He has about 10 students in his Sci-Hi prep classes, and charges less than large commercial franchises—$35 for a 2.5 hour group session with him.
The most well known test-prep business in the area is Khan’s Tutorial. It was started in 1997 by Mansurul Khan, a former New York City public school teacher and assistant principal who immigrated with his family to the United States in 1985. According to Khan’s son, Ivan Khan, himself a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science who also takes part in running Khan’s Tutorial, the business has helped over 800 students gain admission into the elite high schools over the years. Khan’s Tutorial is more expensive than the competition.
Zulkarium Rahman, 15, Moontasin's brother, is a student at Stuyvesant High School. He remembers giving up video games and having two "boring summers" between 6th and 8th grade because he was studying so much for the exam. "I felt bad, but I knew the end result would be better for me," he says.
In addition to the three top tier schools, the test is crucial to admission at other specialized high schools: Brooklyn Latin School; High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College; High School of American Studies at Lehman College; Queens High School for the Sciences at York College; and Staten Island Technical High School. One specialized high school not subject to the Sci-Hi exam is Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, where getting in is based auditions and the student's academic record.
Stuyvesant has the highest cut off score of the eight schools. For the Fall 2007 exam, students scoring at 561 out of a score that ranged from 200 to 800 made it into the school.
Zaman argues that there is too much emphasis on the top three specialized high schools. He wants Bangladeshi parents not to panic if their children do not get into one these schools. “Is their life spoiled because they did not get in?” he asks.
Barua agrees that it's not the end of the world if an industrious student fails to gain admission. One of his former students didn’t leave her house for days because of bad Sci-Hi test results. He says that the failure “destroyed her self-esteem.” Though he concedes that he benefits from the Sci-Hi test prep craze financially, he does not support the excessive pressure put upon these kids to pass the test.
Moontasin remembers kids at her school receiving envelopes with Sci-Hi test results. “They were crying. I couldn’t tell if they were happy or sad,” she says. What would happen if her own Stuyvesant dreams were dashed? “It would be so horrible,” she says.