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Hey DOE: Revamp the SHSAT
The current exam doesn’t accurately measure ability
Ruby Ethika

I attend Stuyvesant, one of nine “specialized” high schools in New York City. Entrance to Stuy and seven other specialized schools is based solely on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, or SHSAT, which students take in October of their 8th or 9th grade year. (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts accepts students based on an audition and portfolio.)

But that criterion has resulted in big racial disparities in who gets offered admission. According to the city’s Department of Education, out of the 902 students offered admission to Stuyvesant in 2018, only 10 were black and 27 were Latinx, despite the fact that these two groups make up 67% of New York City’s entire student population. Meanwhile, 68% of the accepted students were Asian, like me, and 17% were white.

Part of the reason for this disparity is that many kids don’t find out about specialized high schools and the SHSAT early enough, if at all. “In my middle school, my class didn’t know there was an SHSAT. We were considered the dumb class because we didn’t test well in elementary,” says Angie, currently a senior at Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists. She is black and Latina. “However, the higher performing class got to take it as well as the prep they needed.”

Most prep for the test is extracurricular and costs a lot of money. My dad had to take extra shifts at work to pay for mine, but a lot of students have parents that can’t afford it no matter how hard they work. Therefore, another issue is that even when kids do learn about the SHSAT, they have to compete against kids who have been preparing for this test for months or even years.

Test or No Test?

To increase diversity at specialized high schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed a three-year plan that would phase out and eventually eliminate the SHSAT. Admission would be based on grade point averages and statewide test scores instead. Ultimately, 90-95% of the seats in each specialized high school would be reserved for the top 7% of students across the city’s public middle schools. According to the Office of the Mayor, “We would maintain the remaining 5 to 10 percent of seats for students in non-public schools, students new to NYC, and NYC public school students with a minimum grade point average who are not in the top 7% pool.” Those students would enter a lottery to see if they get in.

When I first heard of this plan, I didn’t agree with it: I’d given up the entire summer before 8th grade to attend test prep classes, so the idea that other kids could get into a specialized high school based just on their grades didn’t seem fair to me.

But then I talked to my classmates and saw other sides to the issue. For example, one of my friends in middle school got nearly failing grades, but his parents paid for private home tutoring for the SHSAT and he ended up going to Bronx Science. It’s unfair that a lazy and complacent student can ace the test and go to a great school, while a straight-A student who might not have passed the test or even known about it would be denied admission.

I also had the opportunity to interview Richard Carranza, the new Schools Chancellor. (See p. 12.) He convinced me that the SHSAT is less a measure of intelligence or how good a student you are than simply a measure of how good you are at taking tests—and having the resources to prepare for them.

What Standards?

image by YC-Art Dept

According to the Department of Education website, students shouldn’t need outside test prep to do well: “The test measures knowledge and skills students have gained over the course of their education. Keeping up with schoolwork throughout the year is the best possible preparation.”

That’s not true. For example, when I took the SHSAT in October of 8th grade, the test included algebra questions on systems of equations and graphing inequalities. But in my school (and most public middle schools) Algebra 1 is only taught in 8th grade, and some kids even take it freshman year in high school. So, a student who didn’t have test prep books or classes would be facing material they hadn’t learned yet. Carranza agrees, saying that “the SHSAT is not aligned to state standards.” He acknowledges that the school curriculum does not include all the material present in the SHSAT, and so to Carranza, the SHSAT is “just a hard test.”

Although Carranza supports Mayor de Blasio’s plan to take the top 7% of students from every middle school, he’s open to other ways to diversify the specialized high schools. “It may be another test, plus grades, plus who knows?” he said. “I fundamentally disagree with one test giving students an opportunity.”

Admissions Alternatives

Ultimately, I agree that the current SHSAT should not be the sole criterion for acceptance into specialized high schools. I think a more fair admission process would be to pick students based 50% on a new SHSAT and 50% on grades. This way, even if a student is a poor test taker or had a bad day, they would still have a chance to qualify for a specialized high school because their grades reflect their hard work and commitment. Conversely, a terrible student like my friend would not be accepted.

Grades are a good measure of how well a student will be able to keep up with the workload and adapt to a competitive, rigorous program like Stuyvesant. Looking at grades would filter out students who don’t attend their classes or don’t do homework, and assure that the students are determined and mentally prepared for these elite schools.

But at the same time, I and many other Stuyvesant students believe there should still be some kind of admissions test. Our biggest worry is that taking away the SHSAT will compromise the academic standards of our school. Stuyvesant has the highest cutoff score and we take pride in that. Due to the SHSAT, there is a sense of unity: everyone at Stuy belongs there, because we all passed the same test.

The Department of Education should change the SHSAT so that it aligns to state standards of what students should have learned by 8th grade. This way, students wouldn’t need extra prep classes because they would actually have learned the material they need to know to do well.

I think that this would be a better solution than the 7% proposal. It wouldn’t address all the issues of privilege and networking that have kept the number of black and Latinx students low at specialized schools. But it would start to narrow the gap.

Whatever the process, all middle school students need to be informed about how specialized high school admissions works. This can be done through a mandatory assembly at every middle school, or information can be sent out to everyone the way lunch forms and report cards are. Rather than focusing just on high schools, the DOE should also put more emphasis on improving elementary and middle school education so that there isn’t such a big disparity between students of different races and income levels.

When Angie, who wasn’t told about the SHSAT as an 8th grader, took the SAT in high school, she got one of the highest scores in her school. “People said, why didn’t you take the SHSAT? You could have gotten into a specialized a school,” she said. “So I think info needs to be distributed a lot better. Not being told about this opportunity makes me feel like the kids in my class were just expected to fail.”

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