Take the test

Everybody is talking about the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. Here’s what it looks like

Students take an AP exam at Bronx Science, one of New York City's specialized high schools.

For students looking to attend one of New York City’s top public high schools, only one thing matters — the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test.

The test is the only criterion for students to be admitted into eight of the specialized high schools, and it stands at the center of a contentious debate that blew open last weekend over the stark underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students there. (LaGuardia High School, a specialized performing arts school, requires an audition.)

In an op-ed in Chalkbeat, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for the test to be scrapped and replaced with a system that “best reflects the talents” students have, and is backing a two-step plan that would set apart 20 percent of seats for low-income students. He has renewed a push to lobby for a change in state law, which requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score.

Critics say the test shuts out students who can’t afford intense prep courses. But powerful alumni groups have fought to keep it in place, saying it ensures that the schools remain rigorous.

The two part assessment, consisting of an English Language Arts section and Math section, was revised in 2017 by the Department of Education in the hopes of more accurately reflecting what middle school students attending public schools are learning. While demographic changes have not been a result of these changes yet, there were some major alterations to the test.

Changes are reflected in a sample of a full test provided in the 2017-2018 Specialized High Schools Student Handbook. Students are no longer asked to unscramble paragraphs, and a new grammar section was added that asks students to edit and revise sentences. In the math section, some multiple choice questions were removed, and students instead have to write their own answers. However, advocates still question whether the test has changed in meaningful ways.

Take a look at the full sample test below.

New Possibilities

Inside a Bronx middle school where students rarely apply to attend specialized high schools

Parents and staff at New Venture discuss academics, mental health and how to improve school culture.

Shaydra Spand wants the very best for her daughter, Reniah. But it has never crossed her mind to one day send the sixth grader to one of New York City’s specialized high schools.

“If it means her doing better … Oh yeah, I would send her,” said Spand, during a parent workshop at her daughter’s school, New Venture School, in the Bronx. “But wait, where are they?”

Lately the city has been swallowed by a contentious debate over plans to admit more black and Hispanic students in specialized high schools, which reliably send graduates on to Ivy League colleges and high-powered careers. Considered crown jewels of the education system, the schools are overwhelmingly white and Asian.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is lobbying the state legislature to scrap the admissions test that stands as the sole criteria for entry, and instead allow all students who are in the top 7 percent of their school and the top 25 percent citywide to apply specialized high schools, ranked based on a combination of test scores and grades.

The proposal has sparked fierce backlash from opponents who say the test helps maintain rigorous academic standards at the schools. But if the plan becomes a reality, schools such as New Venture theoretically have the most to gain. Last year, just seven out of the 352 students at New Venture took the SHSAT to gain entry into one of the city’s eight elite high schools — among the lowest number of test takers of any middle school in the city. And according to New Venture’s principal, Dominic Cipollone, no students have gone to specialized high schools during his 14-year tenure.

But the proposal would do little to solve the most entrenched challenges that have kept students from schools such as New Venture out of specialized high schools for so long. Staff members say cramming for tests and landing seats at top schools have taken a backseat to life’s other difficulties — a hurdle city officials will have to face if the mayor’s plan goes into effect.

“I have kids who haven’t eaten, or who don’t have coats, or who saw someone get shot, and I can’t get that kid into the top 7 percent because he’s just focused on, damn I just need to get through this day,” said English teacher Charles Ebea. “He just wants to go home.”

At New Venture, which has a 94.3 percent poverty rate, students have performed far below the citywide average on state tests in recent years. In 2017, New Venture scored in the bottom 4 percent of schools citywide in state math tests and the bottom 5 percent in English.

In late 2014, the de Blasio administration designated it as one of a dozen Renewal Schools, a program designed to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools instead of closing them by offering extra services like after school programs and longer school days.  

The Renewal Program, though, has not shown great strides at struggling schools, and the majority of New Venture students still aren’t proficient in English and math. But the percentage of 7th grade students who scored proficient or above on English state tests rose from 0.9 percent in 2014 to 12.6 percent in 2017 and from 4.3 percent to 5.9 percent in math in the same time period.

With so many students struggling to pass state tests, it’s possible that the proposed admissions changes for specialized high schools could still leave some New Venture students out. The city’s plan would require students to be at the top of their class — but also within the top 25 percent of all students citywide, based on a combination of report card grades and test scores.

Improving test scores is a slow process, Cipollone admits, and he believes that this year the results of their heavy lifting will show.

“I’m confident in the growth we are seeing in preliminary stages, that we really won’t know until we actually see those scores come out,” he said. “But we just feel that this is the year when we will see some significant improvements.”

Cipollone points out that not all of his students received the support that they needed in elementary school and entered the school already far behind peers, like some of his sixth graders who came into New Venture unable to read.

“When you’re with kids who need a lot of remediation, along with that remediation comes a lot of social and emotional support they need, and that’s where teacher frustration comes in because it’s harder,” said Cipollone.

Despite its challenges, New Venture does have high-achievers and parents who are engaged. Last week, Children’s Aid, the non-profit group that is the school’s community partner under the Renewal program, hosted an event for parents to voice concerns about the school and to talk to teachers and other community members. During a workshop about Academics and Enrichment, seventh grade teacher Sharice Woodley-Bender responded to a parent who was concerned that his son wasn’t being challenged enough.

“We have different levels,” explained Woodley-Bender. “So we have the ones up here ‘boing boing boing!’ going really quickly. We’ve got the ones in the middle, they move along, and then we have the ones down here. The difference is so large it’s hard to keep everybody. So we gotta have roller skates on, and go from place to place checking on people. It’s hard.”

What would make their job “100 percent easier,” says ELA coach Celeste Smith, is if even more parents were involved.

“In the past three years all of those saying they wanted to be PTA president end up actually leaving the position, they moved away or they were no longer qualified because they didn’t have children who went here,” said Smith. “We want this to be a place your children want to be. But we also want to have your voice in the decisions that happen with your kids.”

Ebea is concerned that some students may be leery to apply to a specialized school because of the vast difference in demographics. New Venture is 58 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black, and just 1 percent white and 1 percent Asian. At the specialized schools, collectively about 10 percent of current students are black or Hispanic.

“If I’m a high performing minority student, black or Hispanic, and I go to a school that’s mostly Asian or white, and just a few other people look like me, I’m probably not going to achieve the same way. I might be able to, but if I’ve only gone to school with mostly black or Hispanic kids and now I’m in a building with a whole different group, I might feel less,” said Ebea. “What is that going to do for the self esteem of kids? Could they handle that or would they feel isolated?”

This means that the New Venture School would have to prepare its students to not only perform at a high level but feel incredibly confident in themselves.

“Before our students apply, we have to be making sure they understand the culture at these schools and that they don’t feel like outsiders,” said Cipollone. “You earned this spot, you have a right to be here, and you shouldn’t feel less than because you look different.”

The Department of Education says it has done targeted outreach about specialized schools in the form of phone calls, postcards and community events in 15 districts, including New Venture’s. 10 of the targeted districts are ones in which 50 or less students received admission offers to specialized high schools this year.

“We will work with principals and superintendents to ensure students are aware of the opportunities at all of our high schools – including specialized high schools – and to meet the needs of all students,” said Education Department spokesperson Will Mantell.

But a more simple concern for parents is how they would get their children to schools that are more than 30 minutes away. Dilcia Blanco, whose son Derek is in 6th grade at New Venture, had to tell her daughter Stacey, who was applying to schools this year, that getting her to Manhattan from the Bronx every day just wasn’t possible.

“At the high school she liked they start around 8, so she has to leave home around 6 and go home around 6:30? And take the bus and the train? I said no, Stacey, maybe it’s better to just go to a high school in this area,” said Blanco.

Despite believing that more of his students deserve spots at these schools, Cipollone contends that doing well on a single test shouldn’t be the only measure of academic success. Students from New Venture go on to non-selective schools like Harry S. Truman High School and Eximius College Preparatory Academy, which both had four-year graduation rates higher than the citywide average in 2017. However, the percentage of students who graduated college ready from each was lower, according to CUNY’s standards for avoiding remedial classes.

The popular visual and performing arts program at New Venture is also one of the reasons why more students at the school decide to put energy into auditioning for spots at arts-based high schools.

“It’s our job to identify where they are, what their needs are, and also what their gifts are,” Cipollone said “The testing doesn’t tell the full story of our school.”

Diversity Debate

Cynthia Nixon on specialized schools: ‘We need them to be more racially diverse’

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon met with students in Brooklyn on Thursday.

Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon waded into the debate about racial diversity at New York City’s most prestigious high schools Thursday, saying she generally supports a plan that aims to boost their share of black and Hispanic students.

“We need them to be more racially diverse when it comes to black and Latino students,” Nixon said of the eight specialized high schools that use a test to admit students. “And we also need more lower-income students in those schools who are at the top of their classes, but may not have had the supports that would have propelled them into just testing in.”

When asked whether, as governor, she would sign the bill that would remove the required single admissions test, a key element of the city’s plan, Nixon repeatedly said, “I think it’s a start.” (A campaign spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, later said that Nixon would sign it if it passed.)

The comments are the most specific Nixon has made about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan, announced this week in Chalkbeat, to increase diversity at the city’s top high schools, where collectively about 10 percent of current students are black or Hispanic and most students are Asian. The plan has won support from advocates who have long been pushing for changes but sparked fierce pushback from the schools’ alumni associations and some Asian-American community groups.

And while Nixon has long advocated for various education causes, she weighed in Thursday for the first time since launching her gubernatorial bid on the city’s broader school admissions policies.

Asked about schools that screen for admissions, which include schools that Nixon and at least one of her children attended, she said there’s more to be done to make sure schools are more racially representative of the city.

“We need to make sure that all students have access and that every school looks much more like a diversity of New York than it does right now,” she said, following a discussion with students about the school-to-prison pipeline.

But Nixon also implied that screening based on academic ability is typical of public school admissions. “Middle schools and high schools do that, generally speaking,” she said.

In fact, just 28 percent of schools citywide screen students based on grades, attendance, state test scores, and other factors, a system that contributes to extreme racial and academic segregation.

Nixon also weighed in on mayoral control of New York City’s schools, which requires approval of the state legislature. De Blasio has had to fight for that power repeatedly in Albany, and his control currently extends to June 2019, which means the debate will be live again this coming school year.

“I am tired of mayoral control coming up again and again and again. I think that it’s an issue that should be settled,” Nixon said.

Permanently? “I think so,” she responded.