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My First Mensa Meetup                     

C. Alexander
March 2016

 

 It all began after a series of really bad dates. Prison records. Unemployment. The polyamorous. The Caspers. Sure, in certain situations those aren’t detractors. Even Martha Stewart went to prison. After telling a friend, and mother of three adult sons, about my dating woes, she said Ȋwhy don’t you join Mensa; you can meet plenty of great people there.ȋ My immediate reaction was ȊI’m not that smart!

 

But as the pool of available men began to look more and more bleak, I found it an idea worth exploring. I will note that all of my girlfriends are smart wonderful people; there is no shortage of greatness there. Men, however, well let’s just say they aren’t as comfortable being with a smart woman. I signed up for the test, and was pleased to note that of the eight people taking the test, seven were men. I’d come to the right place! I took the test. I worried. I waited. I passed! My first event was a Post-Holiday Gen X/Y get together. Ten to twelve people had RSVP’d. My friends all begged for me to tell them how it went. I googled everything I could about Mensa members, the results were not promising. Would they be stereotypical nerds? After talking to me, would they wonder how I got into Mensa? Should I wear my normal fashionable garb for a Saturday night out or something more subdued for meeting strangers. What if I didn’t like anyone there? What if they didn’t like me? There was only one way for me to answer all of my questions.

 

I arrived at the Ayza Wine and Chocolate Bar, and the hostess pointed me to a long table full of females and one male. You can never have too many girlfriends, I thought. I sat down and immediately began talking to the people nearest to me. They were nice, interesting, animated, and intense. I found them welcoming and warm. I learned much about Mensa and all that it has to offer. The Annual Gathering caused several faces to light-up and the stories began to stream. I was told to book a room immediately.

 

The Mensans were funny, but for more than a few jokes it took me an additional three seconds to understand the punchline. Is this why no one ever seems to get my jokes? It was the first time I’d met a group of wonderful people at a random event. Co-workers and classmates are a given for interests and intelligence. Intramural leagues, sewing/cooking/gym classes, and hiking and traveling groups are much more of a mixed bag, and have rarely resulted in lasting friendships. However, after my first Mensa event, I was sure that I had found a new group of great friends. I am looking forward to the next event so I can continue to make friends and build great relationships.

POINT/COUNTERPOINT

HON, CHRISTOPHER P. LEE

March/April 2016 

 

Should NYC’s specialized high schools admit students based solely on one test or should other criteria be part of the overall admissions determination? 

 

Were you a smart kid growing up?  No, I don’t mean just the smartest one in your family or class, but smartest in your grade or even the entire school?  Were you raised in the city? No, not just any big city, the Big Apple.   Well, if you were bright and a NYC kid, chances are your alma mater was one of the city’s specialized high schools (SHS)—in the old days, Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant or Bronx Science. In more recent years, that category of schools with entry by exam has expanded to include several other HSs. Hunter College HS is sui generis with its own unique admissions process. 

 

Oh, yes; Mensans are intelligent and many were even kids (I’ve heard vicious rumors that some Mensans are so smart they not only skip grades, but childhood as well), and a select few were NYC bred smart kids!  This piece is not by any means the definitive study on the matter, rather it is a primer for Mensans who are new to this controversy. The following discussion on admission to these  public school  for smart kids should be of some interest to our bright and learned readers who very likely went through some sort of special program, or may want their offspring to.   

 

So what’s up at these particular schools? Not enough Ivy grads being produced? No Intel (the old Westinghouse) winner in over a decade? It’s not that simple. Recent graduates of the Big 3 still get their share of science prizes and Ivy acceptances, but there are those who feel these schools should be more diverse—to include more African Americans (AA) and Latinos. The underlying premise is that the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) is biased as evidenced by the disproportionately low numbers of the two aforementioned groups. For statistics see http://www.naacpldf.org/case-issue/new-york-city-specialized-high-school-complaint 

 

This article will forego a history of specialized HSs in NYC and will let the reader delve into that on hir own. http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5392-the-history-of-new-york-citys-special-high-schools-timeline. We’re here to pose the arguments for and against status quo, and then present theoretically viable solutions.   

 

The initial argument is that the more intelligent pupils need a more stimulating and challenging learning environment or else they will be bored and not fully develop. This has been widely accepted and can be seen in the growth of “gifted and talented” (G & T) programs, specialized HSs, and “SP” (special progress) type classes. Indeed, bright students benefit from an advanced learning setting. But how do we select who is intelligent enough to take advantage of these super schools?   

 

Objective criteria would seem to be a fair solution. However, should it be a straight I.Q. score? Should it be a grade on an objective standardized exam? In principle and legally, the selection criterion should be valid. The criterion would be valid if it does what it is supposed to do. The criterion here should ferret out those best suited for the schools’ programs. Simple, right? And it seems for decades the admissions process was doing just that and quite well—14 Nobel laureates might attest to that. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Prize_laureates_by_secondary_school_affiliation. Yet, intelligence being evenly distributed among human beings, it would be expected that there be larger numbers of AAs and Latinos at the specialized HSs.   And therein lies the rub (and I don’t mean a BBQ dry rub). 

 

The argument then goes that the test, SHSAT, must not be valid. The disparate impact on AAs and Latinos is prima facie evidence of a biased exam. In fact, this is the crux of a complaint filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights (OCR) which oversees educational institutions receiving Federal funds-–that the SHSAT has not been validated. http://www.naacpldf.org/case-issue/new-york-city-specialized-high-school-complaint. It does not predict the academic success of its takers. With the ball now in the court of the state education department (and still at a Federal oversight agency after three years), legislation has been  pending in Albany to open the specialized HSs to a holistic admissions process. Such a multi-measure determination could include GPAs, attendance, interviews, recommendations, portfolio assessments, etc., much like college admissions. http://nypost.com/2014/07/19/why-nycs-push-to-change-school-admissions-will-punish-poor-asians/ 

 

But not so fast, the ball is being returned. What’s so wrong about a multi-factor admissions determination? Asian Pacific Americans (APA) who make up a disproportionately large part of the student bodies of the  specialized HSs (60% in 2013) fear they will be discriminated against—the criticism that there are too many APA students. Objective criteria such as tests eliminate the potential bias inherent in subjective benchmarks like interviews, recommendations, and portfolios. Just as APAs were beginning to obtain fairness through objective testing, those very gains could be dissipated by subjective multi-factor admissions.  Worse, it has been observed that APAs will likely have their numbers reduced but the group gaining is not AAs or Latinos rather it would be the connected and affluent. http://nypost.com/2014/07/19/why-nycs-push-to-change-school-admissions-will-punish-poor-asians/ Thus, the goals of a multi-measure admissions system are somewhat undermined if not wholly defeated. 

 

Another rationale put forth by keepers of the status quo is that multi-factors would be lowering the bar with the consequence that the quality of learning would be diluted, curiously sounding like the familiar  anti-affirmative action sentiments surrounding older Supreme Court education cases like Bakke, Bollinger and  Fisher. In the HS context, it might further be contended there is much less a need for diversity as these HS students are not living together, eating together, or doing other things in a campus setting. Viewed that way, greater diversity may certainly be desirable given the abominable numbers, but eliminating a possibly useful (what if the SHSAT were in fact validated?) selection tool that many would hold has been a good predictor may not be the best alternative. 

 

The NAACP LDF has offered the multi-measure solution and also favors seats at the specialized HSs to be set aside for certain select students from each middle school.  I myself favor renaming every HS “Stuyvesant” so every NYC HS grad can be a “Stuyvesant” grad; is this solution that much less farcical than Bloomberg’s renaming failing HSs with titles not that much unlike “The School of Rocket Science,” or “The Genius Academy for the Ridiculously Smartest Kids”? New names and set asides do not really get at the core problem, that is, the numerous low income households with parent(s) who have neither the time, money or knowledge to devote to helping their children in school on a full-time parenting basis. The motivation and desire to learn is too often not passed on. The educational system, and teachers especially, should not be scapegoated for these sociological failings. 

 

A common business solution offered has been to throw money at the problem. (e.g. Zuckerberg in Newark, http://www.businessinsider.com/mark-zuckerbergs-failed-100-million-donation-to-newark-public-schools-2015-9 and Gates Foundation in NYC, http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2003/09/New-York-City-Department-of-Education-Receives-Grant. Critics had maintained that the better well-off can afford the necessary SHSAT prep courses. To pacify these critics, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) has provided free SHSAT prep courses. Some would say that’s too little too late. By the time students are eligible to take the test, a prep course will only help to get them a few more points (mostly by test-taking techniques), not to substitute for years of non-learning. 

 

A conceivable (or maybe inconceivable) alternative would be to eliminate all such specialized HSs and Gifted & Talented programs. Allocate any funds to improving all HSs to a high(er) level. The good students will flourish wherever they go. Opponents might argue that it is the learning milieu that forms a significant portion of the learning experience. In other words, studying and vying with fellow geniuses brings out the competitive brain juices in the better students—lesser students could easily be overwhelmed and intimidated. And again, resources like labs, technology, etc. might be fully utilized by the competent and wasted by the incompetent. On the other hand, the majority of NYC public HS students do not graduate from the specialized HSs and go on to equally if not better institutions of higher learning, just not in as great proportions. See the Nobelists above who went to NYC’s “other” HSs. 

 

This is a controversy that does not admit of any easy remedy and certainly not in the near future. The emotions seem to run high as much is at stake. By definition there will be a group two standard deviations (SD), or around there, above the rest who deserve education appropriate to their needs; whether meeting that need requires exclusion of those below two SDs is really the issue. As talented individuals at the two SD level who may well produce future generations of the same, we NYC Mensans should be able to put our collective genius to work and resolve this matter to the satisfaction of most.   

 

At the time of this writing I became aware of a documentary Tested which delves into this topic. I have not seen the film,  but its website (http://www.testedfilm.com/) appears to be very comprehensive. 

 

 

 

 

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