Hindering, Not Helping, NYC Kids

New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) just announced changes to the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) - the test that is the sole means of admission to NYC’s eight test in specialized high schools. The city believes the newly designed exam will increase diversity in these schools which have, for many years, been woefully unbalanced. It’s hard to imagine though, that these changes will in any way achieve what the city is setting out to do.

The test will now be longer: 180 minutes vs. 150 minutes. With more questions: 144 vs. 95. In some instances students will now need to show their work instead of the straight up, all multiple choice option of the past 20 years. For kids coming from middle schools with less academic rigor, how does showing work ramp up chances to shine? Sidebar: this begs the question, who will now be individually grading these sections on close to 30 thousand tests?

Scrambled paragraphs and logical reasoning are no more. They’re being replaced in part by editing skills queries. So questions that challenged students to think differently, outside the box, to challenge themselves to go beyond what they’re learning in the classroom are now defunct. For immigrant students, for whom English is a second language, will the nuances in sentence structure and punctuation not drilled in schools provide a stumbling block that wasn’t there before?

On the other hand, math content will stay the same. Being that some of the math on the SHSAT hasn’t yet been taught at school, the DOE’s move towards making the exam more aligned to what’s taught in classrooms hits a serious speed bump.

And one of the most controversial changes is the inclusion of 20 field test questions. In a move to make the test more NYC appropriate, questions will now be tested on real time NYC exams meaning almost 20% of the new test will be for research purposes only and won’t count towards a final score. Children won’t know which questions count and which don’t. In an already exceedingly stressful situation, they will now be asked to spend focus and time and energy as testing guinea pigs. Knowing Pearson’s (the company who creates the test) history of confusing and misleading test content, this screams that kids sitting for the exam could find themselves in time wasting quandaries.

No, the changes above won’t have an impact on racial diversity in these rigorous and academically challenging high schools. What would make a difference is better education in lower grades and increased information to families and kids about options for high schools - opportunities that every NYC student deserves. But those are huge undertakings and altering the set up of the SHSAT is a much quicker band aid for the beleaguered DOE.

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