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How to Make the SHSAT Fair
Yasmine Chokrane
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Names have been changed.

I find comfort in the idea that input equals output. Before passing the Standardized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and attending Stuyvesant, a specialized high school, I thought that through hard work, you could achieve anything you set your mind to. But now I am not so sure.

The SHSAT is an exam given to students who live in New York City and is the sole determining factor for admission to the city’s specialized high schools.

Many of the teens who pass the test are like me: born into advantages that give them the stability, support, skills, and knowledge that not all kids in the city’s school system get.

Born Into Advantages

The kids who get into specialized high schools usually take SHSAT test prep classes for between six months and two years. How long they spend in these classes depends on how many of them their parents can afford. The classes are often held on weekends during the school year and nearly every day during the summer before the test, which is given during the fall of 8th grade.

This years-of-test-prep strategy is essential for kids who don’t go to top-notch middle schools. I went to a good middle school, so I was able to do much less grueling prep. My parents paid for an SHSAT prep program offered at my school. I went after school on Wednesdays for an hour and a half during the last two months of 7th grade and the first two months of 8th grade.

We took practice exams and teachers explained why we got certain answers wrong. The practice exams were ones I had already taken while preparing for the SHSAT on my own, so it felt like mindless busy work, meant to try and ease both my and my parents’ anxieties about taking the exam.

Rather than spending the summer before 8th grade on full-time test prep, I visited my aunt in Paris and only studied once or twice a week for a couple of hours.

I Already Knew the Math

When I got home from Paris, I did panic, realizing I needed to study more. So I spent the next two months at Barnes & Noble drilling with the test prep books my family had purchased. Still, this was probably a fraction of the time that most kids from low-performing middle schools study.

Part of the reason I didn’t have to prep for a year or more is that, unlike many other applicants, I had already been taught all the math concepts that are on the SHSAT. In fact, I had finished middle school math while I was still in 7th grade. That’s because I, along with 100 other kids, was part of our school’s scholar program, an accelerated course of study. This put me at a huge advantage, because algebra 1 isn’t taught until high school but it is on the SHSAT test.

Most of the kids from my middle school who got into specialized high schools were in this scholars program. They didn’t have to go through the trouble of learning an extra year of math because they’d already learned it. This tipped the scale in our favor, and shows a significant inequity with this test: Not all students have access to high school-level math in middle school. Even if a student is excelling in all of their classes, they will lack pivotal knowledge they need to pass the exam if they haven’t been taught an 8th and 9th grade math curriculum yet.

Despite specialized high schools being called public schools, the information tested on the exam isn’t easily accessible to most of the students in public middle schools—which contradicts the whole idea of, you know, a public school.

Who Gets in Feels Arbitrary

Even those kids who put in all the time and money are not guaranteed a passing score. The scores often don’t reflect the work they put in.

My friend Patty, for example, had been prepping since 6th grade. She took part in the DREAM program, which is offered to low-income students and runs from the summer of 6th grade to the beginning of 8th grade. For those three years, she was set on one thing only: getting into Staten Island Technical High School.

image by YC-Art Dept

She was fairly confident in her ability to get in. In addition to the prep course, she had a 99% average and was in the top 5% of our class. But her score on the SHSAT was too low to get in.

Meanwhile, I know slackers who rarely did their homework and exhibited no work ethic who passed the exam. Many of these students had gone to test prep for years, their parents investing thousands of dollars. Others study the week before the exam and get a 600, which will get you into Stuyvesant.

If specialized high schools are supposed to be of a higher caliber, I think a student who is consistently hard-working should get in. The 99-average, spends-four-hours-studying, does-well-on-every-test type of student should be getting in, not the student who manages to do well on one test.

A Flawed Plan

On the other hand, while I believe hard work and good grades should carry more weight in determining who gets into specialized high schools, I don’t think the SHSAT should be thrown out altogether. Here’s why: The quality of middle schools in the city’s public school system varies tremendously. So even if you were at the top of your class and you squeak by on the SHSAT test after rigorous test prep, your ability to maintain high grades at the specialized high school is hardly guaranteed.

One student I know at Stuy epitomizes this. He comes from a lower-performing middle school in the Bronx where he was an honors student. He struggles continuously and has even failed some of his classes.

This is why I am concerned about Mayor de Blasio’s plan of eliminating the SHSAT and reserving 90-95% of the seats in each specialized high school for the top 7% of students across the city’s public middle schools. There’s a point in reserving the seats in specialized high schools for the top students—a hard-working student is more likely to succeed, regardless of what kind of middle school they went to.
Reserving seats also promotes diversity in specialized high schools, which is currently lacking. In 2018, only 4.1% seats in specialized high schools were offered to black students and 6.3% went to Hispanic students, according to the education news website Chalkbeat.

More Than a Single Test

More often than not, though, how well you do on a test has less to do with intelligence and hard work than with access. Some middle schools don’t have the money to offer more advanced classes that will prepare their students to succeed at schools like Stuy. This is especially prevalent in middle schools serving socioeconomically disadvantaged students. I know of middle school valedictorians attending specialized high schools who struggle massively to keep up.

I don’t believe we should get rid of the SHSAT completely. I just don’t think a single test should be the only thing that decides who gets to attend specialized high schools—especially when it tests things that aren’t taught in every public school. Instead, I’d like to see the test used along with a more holistic analysis of a student’s academic achievements such as awards, extracurricular activities, and GPA.

Revising the SHSAT to make it fairer would not tarnish the pristine reputation of specialized high schools. I suggest simply taking out material that isn’t taught until students reach high school.

Provide Additional Help

I also recommend that students who are accepted but unprepared to handle the academic rigor of specialized high schools be offered additional preparation during the summer before 9th grade. This can include a placement exam to gauge where they are relative to other students, as well as ongoing support throughout high school for those who still need it.

I wonder if I deserve to be at Stuyvesant in the first place. I was only 10 points above the cutoff on the test. Ten points distinguished me from the rejected applicant, only one or two questions. A calculation error, misreading instructions, or simply bubbling in the wrong answer could have made the difference.

If I managed to somehow squeak into Stuyvesant, what makes me any better than a kid who invested precious hours, who gave up their summer vacation for test prep, or whose parents couldn’t afford the prep classes?

Those who get in aren’t always more deserving than those who missed the exam cutoff by a few points. Clearly more people deserve to get into the city’s elite public schools than test scores might suggest.

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(NYC-2019-03-22)

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