Thousands of students are expected to take the high-stakes and controversial specialized high schools admissions exam, or the SHSAT, this weekend.
The test — administered at eight locations across the city on Saturday, Oct. 26, and Sunday, Oct. 27 — is the sole criteria for admission to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and five other specialized schools. Many families see the test not only as a ticket to a first-rate high school education, but often pin their hopes that it will lead their children to a top-tier college.
The fact that so few black and Hispanic students get into New York’s test-in high schools has fueled an explosive debate over whether a single test should determine admission, and whether access to pricey test prep is what gives some students a leg up.
More than 27,500 students took the SHSAT last year. Of those, 18% where white,and 30% were Asian. Yet Asian test-takers earned just over half of all offers to the specialized schools and white students received 29% of the offers. While 24% of test-takers were Hispanic and 20% were black, those students together earned just over 10% of admissions offers. The racial disparities are glaring given that black and Hispanic students account for two-thirds of students citywide.
Any admissions changes to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech would have to be approved by the state legislature. Mayor Bill de Blasio last summer proposed scrapping the test and admitting the top 7% of students at each city middle school, which studies have found would immediately diversify the schools. Critics of his idea say the test is unbiased, and that this plan would work against white and Asian families. They also contend that it would water down the academic rigor of the schools — a critique that integration advocates have described as a racist assumption about the academic capacity of black and Hispanic students.
This year pro-SHSAT groups, one backed by wealthy New York City businessmen, lobbied successfully in Albany to keep the law intact and the test in place. And lawmakers appeared unwilling to touch the issue beyond hosting forums and hearings.
Here are three things to keep in mind this year about the test and admission to the city’s specialized high schools:
The test remains unchanged this year, but the fight isn’t over.
After the mayor’s plan fell flat in Albany, he acknowledged that he might need to embrace a new strategy for diversifying the schools — but still thinks that scrapping the test is the best approach. It’s still not clear how the city will move forward, but some state lawmakers have their own ideas. Brooklyn Assemblyman Charles Barron, who sponsored the bill that would have carried out de Blasio’s plan, has said he and a group of other lawmakers will try to repeal Hecht-Calandra, the law that mandates the admissions test. Doing so would take the state out of making any decisions about how students get into the specialized high schools.
It’s not likely that such a plan would gain substantially more support than de Blasio’s approach, but it could do better among upstate lawmakers who don’t want to have a say over a city issue.
At the same time, the Education Equity Campaign — a group backed by cosmetics billionaire Ronald Lauder, a Bronx Science alum, and former Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons — is determined to keep the SHSAT and plans to head back to Albany this year to lobby for the cause. They also plan to support a bill that would, among its proposals, create more specialized high schools and expand subsidized test prep — measures they believe are key to increasing black and Hispanic enrollment at the schools, even though existing public test prep in New York City has not achieved that goal.
This year, the city is setting aside 20% of seats for students from low-income families in high-poverty schools who score below the cutoff and agree to attend a summer program before school starts.
This is part of the city’s Discovery program, which officials have been expanding in recent years as one way to diversify the schools. Despite changes to the program, most of those offers still went to Asian students, city data showed.
The number of offers to black and Hispanic students only modestly increased over the years. The city changed the eligibility requirements this year to include just low-income students from high-poverty schools.
This year, 30% of the Discovery offers went to black and Hispanic students, up from 22.4% in 2018. Asian students earned 54% of offers, up 11 percentage points from the year before, and almost 15% of offers went to white students — down about a dozen percentage points from 2018.
Parents and community organizations have sued the city over its Discovery expansion plan and eligibility tweaks, charging that it discriminates against Asian students. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Signing up for the test proved problematic this year.
Many families said that MySchools, the city’s online portal, where test sign-ups take place, was frustrating and confusing.
This was the second year families were expected to use the portal, rather than relying on school counselors to register for the test.
Parents reported that their registration confirmation seemed to disappear from the system after the deadline passed for signing up. (The education department acknowledged the concern and pledged to change the system.)
Unlike last year, parents were not able to pick the time or day that they wanted their child to take the SHSAT. The education department said officials last year piloted giving families the option to request a day and location to take the test. But they found families didn’t necessarily get what they wanted, and got feedback that the change was creating conflicts between registering for the test and auditions at LaGuardia, so the department switched back to the old system.
The change confused Jeanne Solomon, the mother of a ninth-grader at NEST+m on the Lower East Side, who again signed her son up for the SHSAT this year. Last year she got the day and time she wanted and was expecting the same this year, but was surprised to see her son automatically signed up for a non-ideal 8 a.m. exam on Sunday. It followed what she described as a glitchy process through MySchools that included her receiving six back-to-back receipts for registering for the test. Her son has decided not to take the exam because he wants to remain at NEST+m, she said.
“Last year was a significantly better experience and this year has been challenging,” Solomon said. “I’m worried about what the current eighth-grade parents are dealing with.”
It’s also now up to families to print out a ticket that allows students entry to take the test, potentially raising issues for those who lack access to a computer, the internet, or a printer. But the education department said students can also ask their schools for a ticket.