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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

How Asian kids ace exams for elite schools

Prepping for Thomas Jefferson High starts early. Photo: Marcus Yam/Washington Post/Getty Images

At a highly selective public magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology near Washington D.C., 65 percent of incoming students are Asian-American, 23 percent are white, 5 percent Latino and 2 percent black. Last year, 75 percent were Asian-American. Few come from low-income families.

If applicants do well on the entrance exam, they’re judged by grades, an essay, teacher recommendations and a resume. There’s pressure to increase racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.

A TJ survey explains the “excellence gap,” writes Hilde Kahn, a parent of three TJ graduates.

Most of the school’s Asian-American students “enroll in advanced math classes as early as possible in their school careers, even though by their parents’ admission fewer than one third of them are highly gifted in math,” she writes.

(Parents) make sure that at every step of the way their children have access to high-quality extra-curricular math that prepares them for, clarifies, complements, and extends the instruction they’re obtaining in their accelerated public school programs.

To increase diversity in high-level math programs, and enable more people to pursue STEM careers, we “should provide high-quality math enrichment for many more kids, as early in their educational lives as possible,” Kahn writes. Expanding access to advanced programs at public schools isn’t enough, she argues. High-level math achievement requires more.

Promising programs include Boston’s Steppingstone Academy, which starts in 5th- or 6th-grade, and New York City’s BEAM, which starts in 6th grade. writes Kahn.

“TJ provides summer STEM courses, mentorships, and test-prep for underrepresented 7th- and 8th-graders,” Kahn writes. “These programs have had limited effect because they aren’t reaching students early enough with the kind of math enrichment that makes a real difference.”

As a first-generation college student, Mario Martinez was shocked to learn about math camp.

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