Don't Blame the Test

There are currently a myriad of issues with NYC's high school system. The SHSAT shouldn't be blamed for them, nor exorcised with the intention that its disappearance would solve serious problems that still need to be addressed.
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The debate surrounding NYC's esteemed specialized high schools continues - a reworked bill was reintroduced recently in Albany challenging the current test only admissions policy. Instead of maintaining the merit based, purely objective system now in place, going forward, should the bill pass, admissions criteria would include, "grade point averages of applicants, personal statements of interest submitted by applicants and such other factors as the city board shall determine to be necessary."

While the many conversations surrounding the admissions policy have touched on racism, fairness, elitism, gender bias, political whim, inequity in citywide education, mayoral control, lowering standards, and objectivity versus subjectivity, to name a few, the bill under discussion in Albany addresses none of the above. Instead, it is using the test as a scapegoat, as if merely getting rid of it would resolve the issues at hand. Aside from not having a plausible alternative (the criteria suggested above are vague, open-ended, and subjective) throwing away a standard that's been in place for over 40 years, which has maintained the integrity of these schools and has benefited tens of thousands of students seems arbitrary.

The truth is the test is hard. Sitting for the exam without studying for it would be misguided. In fact sitting for any test without preparing would be a red flag for most, but somehow "test prep" has become a negative phrase in this debate.

To do well on this test (as on most tests) kids need to be prepared. While it is straightforward - 45 English, 50 math questions, all multiple choice - it contains information not necessarily covered in school. That doesn't mean the information isn't ready available. And it doesn't mean test prep has to be expensive - a statement many in favor of scrapping the test throw out with regularity. Yes, some families opt for classes or courses or tutors. But the Department of Education distributes a free specialized high school handbook with practice tests at the end of 7th grade. Any student can check specialized highs school admissions test (SHSAT) books out of the library. There's information online. Free test prep is available for some students - yes, of course there should be more. Every motivated kid in NYC, regardless of race, socio-economic status, or gender has access to materials and can prep for the test on their own should they choose to.

Preparing for the test is hard too. But the schools kids are working to gain a seat at are hard. At Brooklyn Tech two years of college level engineering are mandatory. At American Studies only AP courses are offered in subjects they're available in. Expectations are high and the level of rigor is challenging. The time and energy investment involved prepping for the test is a solid precursor to the intensity and dedication necessary to be successful at a specialized high school.

Are all students willing to take that on? Is elementary and middle schools academic preparedness equal throughout the city so all students contemplating the test are on a level playing field? Do all students even know about the test? The answer to all is no. But that's not the test's fault.

It would be remiss not to mention scrambled paragraphs, the SHSAT section most often mentioned with derision. Kids are giving 5 sentences to reconstruct in order. It's a logic skill not taught in schools and which most likely won't appear anywhere else along their educational journey. But isn't that what school is all about? My daughter, a junior at Brooklyn Tech, will mostly likely never again spend 45 minutes solving a single calculus problem. But that doesn't mean her experience learning and mastering something new isn't worthwhile.

Working hard to earn a seat at a school where students will be continually challenged once they get there by a test that is devoid of bias or subjectivity, at which any student regardless of socio-economic status, race, color, or gender, has an equal chance is nothing but fair. Seems quite an efficient system especially since no one has proposed anything that might work better.

Could changes be made? Sure. Time management is one of the biggest struggles kids have when sitting for the SHSAT. Make the test longer. The city could provide even more free test prep and make sure families are notified about high school options early on. And most importantly, there should be enough viable seats available at high schools across the city to ensure all all NYC kids have access to a good education.

There are currently a myriad of issues with NYC's high school system. The SHSAT shouldn't be blamed for them, nor exorcised with the intention that its disappearance would solve serious problems that still need to be addressed.

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