Next challenge for NYC middle school principals: administering the SHSAT in a pandemic

Students walk down the stairs near Bronx High School of Science, a specialized high school in the Bronx.
The entrance exams for the coveted schools will be given at middle schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. Above, students walk down the stairs near Bronx High School of Science, a specialized high school. (David Handschuh for Chalkbeat)

New York City middle schools will open their doors next week for the first time since November, but students won’t be returning for in-person learning. Rather, they will be sitting for a controversial exam that some school leaders urged the city to cancel amid the pandemic.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, or SHSAT, is typically given at a handful of sites to the roughly 30,000 students who register to take it. This year, to account for social distancing, every middle school will be required to administer the test to eighth graders who sign up. Given most years in October, the postponed SHSAT will now be offered beginning Jan. 27. That presents a major logistical burden for principals, who say that, especially now, time and staffing are in short supply.

While many families are eager for their children to snag a coveted spot in one of the eight specialized high schools that use the test as the sole admissions criteria, some school leaders question the resources it will take to give a test that many blame for driving racial segregation at specialized schools.

“During such a time, it is hypocritical to put student and staff health at risk and funnel school resources towards a test that is antithetical to the stated mission of creating more equitable schools,” more than a dozen principals wrote in an open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza. “We implore you to reconsider this decision that places an undue burden on already stressed and overwhelmed schools.”

Following years of battling over the SHSAT, and failed efforts to eliminate it, some critics of the test hoped city and state leaders would take this moment to press pause, given the hurdles of administering an in-person test for thousands of students during a pandemic.

Instead, principals have another big challenge on their hands. The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents principals and other school leaders, is worried about the short runway schools have been given to make sense of all the requirements detailed in multiple memos and a 73-slide, two-hour training. 

“Under normal conditions, this would be a challenging task for school leaders and their staff,” said union Vice President Henry Rubio. “Given the pandemic, we have serious concerns about the city’s timetable, about the necessary staffing it requires, and the [education department’s] ability to conduct a safe and orderly administration of this exam.”

Principals will now have to coordinate with the shipping company sending the exams, designate a staffer to accept the delivery this week, and recruit extra proctors in case teachers need to quarantine due to the coronavirus. (Over the last seven days, more than 8.5% of coronavirus tests have come back positive, and a more contagious strain of the virus was recently identified in New York City.) 

Meanwhile, just finding the space, and setting up socially distanced desks, will take time and people-power. Classrooms can be filled to third of capacity and students with disabilities must be grouped into rooms according to the kinds of accommodations they must receive, such as extra time to answer questions or help filling in bubbles.

“This is the hardest year any educator I’ve spoken to has ever had. And now, to have to do extra for something that doesn’t even serve our school population ... it’s just frustrating,” said Damon McCord, co-principal at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens. “There’s got to be a way to administer this test online, or at centralized sites on weekends, that doesn’t jeopardize public health and burden schools that are already trying to do more with less.”

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Families have also struggled to make sense of the department of education, or DOE, plans for a test that many see as definitive for their child’s future. 

Susana Martinez-Conde selected fully remote learning for her three children this year to avoid the coronavirus exposure and was disappointed to learn that her eighth grade son will have to take the SHSAT in person. The family had decamped to Georgia to live with relatives and is planning to make a whirlwind drive back to New York City for the exam. 

“We have been so careful about being in almost complete lockdown since this started and now we have to take a chance for this test to happen,” Martinez-Conde said. “The DOE has put us in an impossible position.”

While the SHSAT is usually given in the fall, it wasn’t clear until the end of December that it would even be administered this school year. Some students study for years in preparation. 

Sanjay Soni, the father of an eighth grader in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said he and his wife bought practice books and have been helping their daughter study for the exam. But it’s been hard to keep the teen motivated when it wasn’t clear the test would actually take place. “That increases anxiousness in her,” he said. “What to tell a 13 year-old how to deal with this?”

Originally from India, Soni said he studied intensely for similar high-stakes entrance exams, and credits the opportunities it landed him with paving a better life for his family after they lost everything in partition, when India and Pakistan were cleaved.

“I was able to break through because of this test,” he said.

Since the 1970s, New York state law has mandated the SHSAT as the only admissions criteria for getting into the city’s specialized schools, including Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Technical. (Some have argued that New York City could do away with the entrance exam for five of the specialized schools.) Seen by many as the Ivy League of public high schools, only about 4,000 of the top scorers are offered seats. 

Most students admitted to the specialized high schools are Asian, many of whom come from low-income and immigrant families and see high SHSAT scores as a ticket to top-rate colleges and out of poverty. (Research has suggested there is little benefit from attending the selective high schools.) 

Meanwhile, starkly few Black and Latino students get accepted into the schools. That lack of representation is often blamed on the single-test entry requirement. 

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Many other high-stakes tests have been overhauled during the pandemic. The SAT plans to cut portions of the exam, and a slew of colleges that have relied on the test as an entry requirement have dropped it. Even the state’s Regents high school exit exams, in place since the 1800s, were canceled last spring and again this winter.

Education department spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon said the city considered giving the SHSAT online but decided against it.

“An in-person administration continues to maintain a fair and consistent testing experience for all students. Remote testing may pose new barriers for students, particularly those from underserved areas,” she wrote. “As a high-stakes exam, unknown variables associated with remote testing at this time may alter the test’s validity to determine admissions to a Specialized High School.”

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s public criticism of the SHSAT, he did not answer directly when asked if he lobbied state leaders for a waiver this year. 

“When the Department of Education looked at it this year they determined that they could make it happen. It was something they could do logistically, do safely, and that’s why it proceeded to move forward,” de Blasio said earlier this month. “This needs to be re-examined in a very thoughtful process to find a better way for the future.”

It’s not clear if a state waiver could have been given, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo has used vast executive authority during the pandemic to halt evictions and close schools throughout the pandemic.

Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.

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