secret study

New York City released its study of the SHSAT. Here’s why it won’t end the admissions debate.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School is one of the city's most sought-after specialized high schools.

The sole exam that determines admission to New York City’s elite specialized high schools generally predicts which students are likely to be successful in high school, according to a study the city has kept secret for years.

The study, which was completed in 2013 and obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request, found that the high-stakes Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, has a “strong positive predictive relationship” with student achievement during the first two years of high school, measured by grades, scores on AP tests, and Regents exams.

The test has been the subject of a heated debate ever since Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed eliminating it earlier this summer to make the schools more racially representative of the city’s student population.

The test itself has been subject to remarkably little formal evaluation, including whether it accurately selects students who are likely to flourish at specialized high schools. The 2013 report is the first of its kind to directly look at that issue.

Still, the study doesn’t address key questions about whether the SHSAT is any better at predicting student success than the alternative system de Blasio put forward. And it can’t get at the heart of the debate about the importance of diversifying the elite schools.

The study uses data from every single eighth grade student who took the SHSAT between 2005 and 2009, looking at whether a student’s score seemed to predict early success in high school. It finds a relatively strong relationship between SHSAT scores and early high school performance.

Critics of de Blasio’s plan to get rid of the test will likely point to the research as evidence the exam is worthwhile and shouldn’t be abandoned. After all, it selects students who are likely to be successful at schools such as Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech.

But two outside education researchers said the study doesn’t actually offer any evidence about whether the SHSAT is the best admissions method, since it does not look at whether alternative methods would also yield similarly strong students.

“It tells us something we already knew: Kids who do well on the SHSAT do well in high school,” said Aaron Pallas, a researcher at Columbia who reviewed the study at Chalkbeat’s request. “But it doesn’t tell us what is the best combination of factors that predict who might do well in an exam school.”

The education department itself also downplayed the study’s findings.

“What the validity study misses is the kid who didn’t do as well on the test, or didn’t take it, but still stands an excellent chance of being successful in these high schools if they had the opportunity,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department has previously declined to release the report, which was commissioned in response to a civil rights complaint lodged by the NAACP and completed in 2013, before de Blasio took office the following year.

The report does not look at longer-term outcomes, such as graduation rates or college enrollment, but previous research has found that the SHSAT does not predict college attendance or graduation. The study also can’t account for changes to the SHSAT, which was redesigned last year to more closely align with material that students learn in middle school. And it doesn’t offer demographic breakdowns by race or socioeconomic status.

De Blasio has proposed scrapping the test entirely in an effort to desegregate the specialized high schools, saying the process is unfair to students whose families can’t afford test prep. Though 67 percent of the city’s public school students are black or Hispanic, just 10 percent of offers to attend specialized high schools go to black or Hispanic students.

Instead, de Blasio has proposed a University of Texas-style system that would admit the top 7 percent of students at every middle school, which would significantly increase the number of black and Hispanic students who are admitted.

Critics, including vocal alumni groups, parents, and some politicians, have argued that the mayor’s plan would water down the schools’ academic rigor, but an analysis conducted by the city has found the proposal would not have a sizeable impact on incoming students’ middle school test scores or GPAs.

Overall, Pallas says the new findings don’t have strong policy implications for the broader debate.

“This is a primitive analysis,” he said. “This is going to be used as a Rorschach test where people will see what they want to see in it.”

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.

 

Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.

 

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.