With the wave of recent debate concerning the lack of diversity in the New York City Specialized High Schools, many have called for a reevaluation of the admissions system. As a result, New York City’s Panel for Education Policy approved changes in the format of the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), to be implemented beginning in Fall 2017.
In the past, the SHSAT featured “scrambled paragraphs”—unchronological sentences that need to be arranged into a paragraph—and logical reasoning sections. In the new exam, these sections will be abandoned in favor of multiple choice sections on standard writing conventions. The other sections, consisting of reading comprehension and math, will remain unchanged. “[The] purpose of these changes is to make [the] test more closely aligned to what students are learning in school on a day-to-day basis,” Department of Education (DOE) Executive Director of Assessment Dan Park said.
The change is part of a response to the controversy concerning racial diversity within the Specialized High Schools system. Since coming to office in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been at the forefront of the movement to integrate the Specialized High Schools: 3.6 percent of Black students and 5.3 percent of Hispanic students who took the SHSAT in 2015 received an offer, despite the fact that about 70 percent of students citywide are of African American or Hispanic descent.
The mayor originally favored a complete overhaul of the admissions process when he entered office in 2014. He advocated for a holistic system that would consider students’ backgrounds, middle school grade-point averages, extracurriculars, and personal essays. He argued that many students do not have the resources to partake in preparatory programs that focus on skills on the test that are not taught in the classroom.
However, a change that drastic would require a change to state legislature. The Hecht-Calandra Act states that admissions to the Specialized High Schools should solely and exclusively be determined by taking an objective scholastic achievement examination. Attempting to eliminate this completely would require legal proceedings. Consequently, de Blasio and DOE officials working in high school admissions decided instead to make changes to the test itself.
Student responses to this change are mixed. “Free preparatory programs for the SHSAT are accessible, if students took the effort to look for them,” junior Eugene Thomas said. “The problem is not the Specialized High Schools. It’s K-8 education and insufficient advertising of these programs at under-served schools.”
Thomas is one of the seven black students in his grade at Stuyvesant. While he admits that he cannot speak for all black students, he believes that the current admissions system is fair despite the diversity imbalance. “The racial skew in [Stuyvesant] might be a reality, but I don’t think that [it] takes away from my education. In fact, the meritocracy of the SHSAT has chosen for me an incredible peer group,” he said.
However, other students’ SHSAT experiences differ. “I didn’t really realize that there was such an abundance of prep programs available when I was taking the test, and although my mother has always kind of fit the ‘tiger mom’ stereotype, she didn’t send me to classes because she did not realize they existed,” Queens High School for the Sciences at York College senior Mohamad Moslimani said.
Moslimani is a first-generation Lebanese immigrant. He originally hoped to attend Stuyvesant, but missed the cutoff for scoring. “There are some kids who are informed about preparatory classes for the SHSAT, and then there those like me who aren’t. It comes down to the community you were born into, and [it] isn’t an admissions policy that necessarily reflects everyone’s best possible learning curve,” Moslimani said.
Brooklyn Technical High School junior Sabrina Zou had the opposite experience. “As a first-generation Chinese student who came to the United States in fourth grade, I’ve been raised in the culture of parents pushing their kids to be the best. This wasn’t always fun for me, but it did mean my parents would always hear about SHSAT prep from relatives and friends,” she said. “My parents set aside a lot of money for prep, and I spent four months preparing for the test.”
This type of preparation for the SHSAT is precisely what advocates of changing the system hope to eliminate. The unfamiliar “scrambled paragraphs” can be difficult for students who have never seen them before, and can put students who did not prepare for the exam outside of school at a disadvantage. But many students oppose this targeted reform. “I just don’t think it’s necessary to change the system. The truth of the matter is that a lot of students who prep aren’t very well off, but their families are willing to sacrifice in order to get them into better schools,” senior Hasan Tukhtamishev said. “Ultimately, if you put in enough effort or have the ability, you will get into a specialized school. I used prep books from the library and my parents put me into a short program.”
Though student opinion is polarized, the Stuyvesant administration considers it too early to judge the effects of the change. “The current system might not be entirely perfect, but all changes come with new challenges,” Principal Eric Contreras said. “We don’t know the specifics of what will happen, so we’ll just watch and wait.”