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Bill to change NYC Specialized High-Schools Admission Sent to State Legislature

Should it be more than one test?
Should it be more than one test?
Author's personal photo

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio ran on the promise of changing how admission to NYC's top high-schools is decided. Currently, everything depends on a student's score on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT).

Though official qualifying scores are not released, an unofficial accounting by parents on suggests the following:

Stuyvesant 562
Bronx Science 513
Brooklyn Latin 471
Brooklyn Technical 483
HSAS @ Lehman 501
Queens Science @ York College 500
Staten Island Tech 503

Stuyvesant 562
Bronx Science 512
Brooklyn Latin 472
Brooklyn Technical 482
HSAS @ Lehman 502
Queens Science @ York College ?
Staten Island Tech 499

Mayor deBlasio's son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Tech, presumably having not scored highly enough to qualify for either Stuyvesant High School or Bronx Science, prompting one Stuyvesant student to quip, "Dear Mr. Mayor, we're sorry your son didn't get into Stuy. But why take it out on those of us who did?"

According to the Mayor, his reasons for pushing to change the admissions criteria have nothing to do with his own child's placement, but with his belief that the school is not "diverse" enough (despite being over 70 percent Asian - but that doesn't seem to count).

The new criteria would factor results from the Specialized High School Admissions Test along with attendance, class grades, and state exam scores. Though there is little evidence that it would fundamentally change the admissions pool.

“We cannot have a dynamic where some of our greatest educational options are only available to people from certain backgrounds,” de Blasio said in April.

Those backgrounds, however, have less to do with race and economics, and more to do with what schools the children attended previously; which, granted, are affected by race and economics, but not exclusively. The Mayor's own son, after all, is African-American. And over 50% of students in all of the Specialized Schools qualify for free lunch. Furthermore, the same factors that prompt a child to do well on the SHSAT - home environment, parents' education level, outside tutoring, etc... - would presumably play the same role in grades and state exam scores. The main difference would be that teachers could inflate grades and schools could cheat on exam scores in a way they can't currently on the SHSAT.

As one mother of an African-American child who was admitted to Stuyvesant in 2013 wrote:

In my opinion, the test is not the problem. The problem is that the majority of New York City’s middle schools are doing a horrible job preparing their students for the test.

The mayor talks about the test-prep industry, implying that the wealthy are buying their way into these schools.

Except that close to 50% of Stuyvesant’s current enrollment qualify for free lunch. The school is 73% Asian (something the mayor conveniently ignores when he talks about its low numbers of “people of color”). They are primarily Chinese and Korean. For many, English is not their first language. And it’s most definitely not their parents’. Yet these families spend hard-earned money on cram schools to prep for the SHSAT starting as early as 3rd grade–because their public school isn't getting the job done.

My son did not get tutored for the SHSAT. What he did, however, was buy prep books and every weekday of his summer vacation prior to the SHSAT he took a sample practice test to get ready.

The prep books are available to anyone–it’s not like the contents of the SHSAT are a secret only doled out to those with the right password. The real secret is the fact that, while the test, which is given in October of your 8th grade year, contains algebra, algebra isn't taught in most public schools until spring of 8th grade (if at all).

Because my son went to private school, he was familiar with the material, and all he needed to do was practice the specific (admittedly Draconian) format of the test.

Unless an NYC student attends an accelerated middle school, there is no way they can be ready for the SHSAT without outside tutoring. (My son reports that every African-American he’s met so far at Stuyvesant went to one of these schools.)

There are many reasons to continue using the SHSAT as the sole criterion for acceptance to the specialized high schools. Unlike grades, recommendations, etc… the SHSAT is completely objective. Grades are not. One teacher’s A might be another teacher’s B. The rigor of classes vary from school to school so a C in one might equal a B in another. There is no way to control for that. Interviews are also subjective to the interviewer. The same portfolio might receive different scores from different reviewers and it would be impossible for a single person to judge the standard 30,000 applicants. The SHSAT is not subjective. Everyone takes the same test, and it is scored by a computer....

The biggest problem is that if, in the interest of “equality,” a few hundred more Black and Hispanic students are admitted despite missing the cut-off, it might make things better for them, but it would make it infinitely worse for the thousands left behind in sub-par middle and elementary schools.

By having these pathetic SHSAT results publicized year after year, it shines a light on just what an awful job inner city schools are doing educating those students who can't afford to buy their way out of a broken system, either through private schools or private tutoring centers. If the specialized high schools’ racial balances were “fixed,” we might be tempted to consider the problems they expose “fixed,” too.

The SHSAT is not the problem. It is, instead, a symptom of the genuine problem, which is the inferior education offered to the majority of NYC’s children. Many of whom are Black and Hispanic. The SHSAT is a diagnostic, the canary in the coal mine. Get rid of it, and the real problem–insufficient standards across the board–becomes much easier to hide.

Read the entire argument at:

The Mayor and the School Chancellor are not interested in fixing the real problems in NYC schools, so they are opting to cover them up, instead.

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