First Person

‘So there I was, figuring it out myself’: A Brooklyn teen on why the city’s specialized high school prep wasn’t enough

PHOTO: Teens Take Charge
The author at an event organized by Teens Take charge.

Stuyvesant High School once loomed large for high school senior Hiba Hanoune.

The school is one of New York City’s specialized high schools, long considered crown jewels of the city’s education system. The schools also look very different than the city, with just 11 percent of admissions offers for next year’s freshman class going to black and Hispanic students.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has taken some steps diversify those student bodies, including expanding programs that provide students with test prep. The numbers haven’t budged, though.

In front of a standing-room crowd at the Brooklyn Public Library, Hanoune recently shared her less-than-ideal experience with the city’s DREAM program, which is supposed to help students prepare for the specialized high school exam — and explained how she eventually created a successful high school experience without Stuyvesant. The event was organized by Teens Take Charge, a group of students who advocate for changes in the school system.

In the time since Hanoune took the specialized high school admissions test, the city has changed the exam in an attempt to align it more closely with what eighth-grade students are expected to learn in class. The scrambled paragraphs that Hanoune encountered, for example, are gone. But advocates question whether the test has really changed in meaningful ways.

Here’s an expanded version of what Hanoune had to say.

It was September of 2014. There I was, the salutatorian of my graduating eighth-grade class, preparing myself for admission to my dream school, Stuyvesant High School. Stuyvesant was that one school that was going to help support me and set a springboard for my future endeavors.

My family wasn’t well off financially. Often times, we struggled and there was constant worry over whether we had food in the fridge or we had school supplies. I wasn’t expecting to enroll in a Kaplan or a Princeton Review course like my fellow affluent classmates. Nevertheless, I persisted. I sought out a free program that’s funded by the Department of Education called DREAM. Upon hearing the name of the program, I knew this was my chance to really meet my goal. I was one step closer to Stuyvesant.

Every Saturday morning, I would take a two-hour train ride to the site where the program was held. My excitement and eagerness faded upon finding out that my course was set in a dilapidated building, and my so-called instructor didn’t seem like she was there for the purpose of instructing but rather for the paycheck. We were given a workbook and told to start on page 2. I distinctly remember inquiring to my instructor about a problem in the workbook, and as a response, my book was thrown back and I was told to figure it out myself.

So there I was, figuring it out myself. I remember just copying off of my classmates because I didn’t want to hand in a blank workbook. We would have about 30 minutes of instruction; it was very minimal. The instructor just basically reiterated everything that was in the textbook.

After that first summer in DREAM, I was transferred to another site, where the instructors were better. But I quickly found that I couldn’t keep up with my classmates. The instructor just completely ignored the fact that some people were lagging. English was my stronghold so I did pretty well, but when it came time for math instruction I felt like she was just speeding through.

When we took practice tests, I would get discouraged by my low scores. My DREAM classmates went to more prestigious middle schools — screened middle schools that select their students based on their grades and test scores. When I tried to apply to a screened middle school, my immigrant parents discouraged me. They just weren’t very aware of the middle school process and worried about me leaving our neighborhood.

October rolls in. I show up to the test with two sharpened No. 2 pencils and little-to-no knowledge or practice for the test. I remember the morning of the test, my dad drove me to Dunkin’ Donuts and told me, ‘You got this.’ I sat down, and when I got to the first section, there was a scrambled paragraph. I thought, ‘Oh no.’ That feeling didn’t budge as I noticed that other kids were speeding through their questions.

November, December, January, February, March. Results day.

I opened my letter to find out my score amounted to nothing in comparison to my classmates. As classmates shouted that they’d been accepted to Staten Island Tech, or Bronx Science, my letter revealed that I was matched to my zoned high school. There I was, the salutatorian, matched to the zoned program.

My dad had all the confidence that I would get accepted to a specialized high school, so I only applied to my neighborhood high school. I think that reflected my parents’ lack of knowledge around the issue.

Although I didn’t get accepted to a specialized high school, I constantly told myself, ‘You can make it anywhere. You just have to make use of what’s available.’ I joined activities that interested me and stimulated critical thinking including mock trial, Model United Nations, and moot court — a law competition.

In my high school, there is a major, major disparity. There is an honors academy, which I attend, and a zoned program. Honors students have first priority to take honors classes and also have access to Advanced Placement classes. In the honors program, I feel challenged and stimulated. It has been very rewarding, but I don’t think it’s fair that some of my peers don’t have access to those classes just because some test scores or grades from their middle school years mean they don’t qualify.

This fall, I will be heading to Columbia University to study human rights. Attending Columbia was just a dream that I didn’t think was attainable until I got my acceptance letter.

The specialized high school exam tests material that would not be known to your average eighth-grader — unless a prep course was taken. Yes, the specialized high school test is race-blind. Yes, the specialized high school test is bias-blind. But we cannot forget that only 10 percent of students who make up these schools are black or Latino. The dichotomy speaks for itself. Something must be wrong.

This barricades financially disadvantaged students’ opportunities to attend an elite high school. Claiming that the test is not biased sounds like an absolutely valid justification for keeping it in place. But the test actually subjugates thousands of qualified students simply because of their lack of resources and for reasons beyond their control. One test is not and should not be the determining factor of one’s success.

Hiba Hanoune is a senior at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn. 

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.