For public specialized high schools of New York City, the admissions process consists of nothing more than one standardized test: the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). A student must score above a certain benchmark in order to be admitted. This year, the school with the highest score benchmark, Stuyvesant High School, accepted only seven Black students in a class of 895. Two members of The Miscellany News Editorial Board—who graduated from NYC public high schools—offer arguments for and against the SHSAT.
Even people who have been through the grueling and blatantly unfair college admissions process will likely struggle to conceptualize the stress and pressure of applying to public high school in New York City. The process involves interviews, essays, standardized tests––all of this probably sounds familiar, but picture going through it at 12 years old. Imagine 12-year-old you, travelling from borough to borough and neighborhood to neighborhood to tour, interview, test and be judged. The stakes are incredibly high, too: While some New York City schools offer educational opportunities that are among the best in the country, the resources at others are among the worst.
The former category includes eight specialized schools. Some of these institutions are as old as universities, with alumni networks to match. They are undoubtedly among the best public high schools in New York––in fact, out of the top ten NYC high schools as reported by the U.S. News and World Report, six are specialized (U.S. News and World Report, “New York High Schools,” 2018). This is all to underline the drastic importance of the issue at hand: Black and Hispanic students are being kept out of some of the best high schools in the city, and we have to make a change.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose son is Black and a graduate of one of the specialized schools (Brooklyn Technical High School), has been explicit about his view that the test must go. In a statement posted on Chalkbeat last June, de Blasio wrote, “The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence” (Chalkbeat, “Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it,” 06.02.2018). De Blasio went on to cite the high cost of test tutors and the inaccessibility of information in underrepresented communities as key reasons why the SHSAT yields such homogenous student bodies. To anyone who has been through the college admissions process, the former point is obvious: Tutors aren’t just helpful, they’re literally necessary for most people to perform well on these types of tests. The latter statement is equally lucid: How can you study for a test you don’t know exists?
Venus Nnadi, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants and a Stuyvesant graduate, explained to a New York Times reporter: “I had a lot of friends in my middle school who were just as smart as me, and who I know could be thriving at Stuyvesant if they had known it existed” (The New York Times, “How the Few Black and Hispanic Students at Stuyvesant High School Feel,” 03.22.2019). Nnadi had been informed of the test by a teacher in fifth grade and began studying soon after, but many students across the city learn about the test too late to teach themselves the skills necessary to do well. This would be less of an issue if the admissions process were based on more than just an exam: if grades were the basis for admissions, students would not have to hopelessly scramble in eighth grade to prepare for applications they had never heard of previously, as their years of schoolwork would be what mattered instead.
That idea is similar to the long-term plan that Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Richard A. Carranza have announced for phasing out the test. The proposition suggests a program in which “students would be designated top performers using a composite score based on their 7th grade English, math, social studies, and science course grades, as well as their 7th grade State math and ELA exam performance … In each year of the three-year elimination, a greater percentage of offers would go to the top students from each middle school, and fewer seats would be determined based on the SHSAT” (NYC.gov, “Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza Announce Plan to Improve Diversity at Specialized High Schools,” 06.03.2018). This plan incorporates a far more holistic and representative view of each applicant. Consequently, “Based on modeling of current offer patterns, 45 percent of offers would go to black and Latino students, compared to 9 percent currently; 62 percent of offers would go to female students, compared to 44 percent currently; and four times more offers would go to Bronx residents” (NYC.gov, “Improve Diversity”).
Not everyone approves of nixing the test, however. The issue is deeply contentious among NYC residents and specialized high school alumni alike. One pro-test argument claims that the test is a necessary indicator of a student’s ability to succeed in these schools, where the curriculum is often test-centered and highly rigorous with little room for kids from underprivileged areas who have received mediocre middle school educations to catch up. Those students would flounder, or, if the curriculum were re-designed to accommodate them, kids who could perform well on the SHSAT would be bored. Stuyvesant graduate and current president of the school’s alumni organization Soo Kim told The New York Times, “The school is designed by the way students are selected … If you change that, you change it all” (The New York Times, “Racist? Fair? Biased? Asian-American Alumni Debate Elite High School Admissions,” 02.06.2019).
My response to that is simple: we absolutely should change it all. If these schools are not equitable and accessible to top-performing students from every demographic, they must be changed so that they are.
Of the seemingly infinite high schools in New York City, each with a unique application process, you can kill eight birds with one stone: the SHSAT. The standardized exam has been used for decades as the sole factor of acceptance for NYC’s specialized high schools. Year after year, however, it becomes increasingly evident that the demographics of these schools fail to reflect those of the city’s middle school population, offering seats to a disproportionately low number of Black and Hispanic students. Much of the backlash for this lack of diversity has fallen on the exam itself, which is commonly labeled as a roadblock to achieving diversity in NYC’s elite secondary schools.
In 2017, only 34 percent of eighth graders across the boroughs sat for the SHSAT, with approximately 3,800 students receiving an acceptance letter. Adding gasoline to the fire is that 25 percent of these golden tickets were offered to students from the same 10 middle schools, largely in higher-income neighborhoods (The New York Times, “See Where New York City’s Elite High Schools Get Their Students,” 06.29.2018).
The exam itself has historically received most of the criticism for these unfortunate statistics, and it will continue to do so. The obvious seems undisputable: Students of lower-income, minority communities are not receiving the same access to resources as their counterparts, be it in tools to perform well on these exams or access to the schools themselves. The root of these concerns, however, goes beyond the exam. In fact, focusing on the SHSAT as the root of the problem only blurs the lines further.
The reality is that the exam has been majorly revamped in recent years—for the better. The structure of the exam itself has changed to reflect the standardized testing already expected of students in the seventh grade, removing logic-based questions and scrambled paragraphs for reading comprehension and comparable math problems (The Princeton Review, “2017 SHSAT Format Changes,” 2019). Theoretically, the exam has evolved over the years to more accurately demonstrate the academic positionality of its audience, irrespective of other demographic factors. Test prep resources are also no longer as big of an issue, as free tutoring services, both online and in-person, have become exponentially more accessible to students interested in taking the exam.
The exam’s new format arguably makes it one of the most accessible application processes in the city; combined with other standardized measures—like only two specified test dates and administration by the Department of Education—it has become an increasingly completable exam for its recipients.
Alternatives for the SHSAT have been proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, one option being to replace the exam with the acceptance of the top seven percent of students at their respective middle schools. While a change like this promotes more demographically diverse specialized high schools, it also will change the academic structure of these institutions. The SHSAT holds an important weight in representing the standardized, test-heavy culture of the schools it embodies. Expectations for how students perform in these standardized settings won’t necessarily change; the question, under Mayor de Blasio’s proposal, is whether the removal of the exam as a measurement of a student’s ability to succeed in these respective environments will do more harm than good.
This is not to say there is nothing to be changed. Test or no test, something has been wrong for a while. The placement of such a pressure on middle school-aged children to apply to a variety of schools presents an obvious issue in the structure of the education system and its priorities. It is not uncommon that students cite a genuine unawareness of the exam as a reason for not preparing, or even registering for it. As a NYC middle school student, your next steps into secondary education involve an application to high school in one way or another. The inability of these schools to provide the resources to their students to succeed in the expected next steps makes a shocking statement of its own. For such a young group of students, there should not be such a stark difference in the quality of education from neighborhood to neighborhood, demographic to demographic, especially within the same city. It is not just the SHSAT that should be scrutinized for its role as a sorting hat: the issues trickle down to the origin, to the academic structures of the middle schools themselves.
The emphasis on standardized testing is deeply embedded into the curriculums of students from a young age. The removal of the SHSAT will do little to change that; a reevaluation of the education system will. A more cohesive understanding by the Department of Education of what should constitute a middle school education—and how they anticipate these skills to translate to the myriad of options for what follows—is a much more crucial conversation to be had.