2014-09-03 / Features

Coalition: Keep SHSAT Sole Criterion For Admissions

A newly-formed Coalition of the Specialized High School Alumni Organizations released a statement on August 25 of Core Principles in support of maintaining the Specialized High Schools Admission Test (SHSAT) as the sole criterion for admission, while calling for an expansion of enrichment and accelerated educational programming in middle schools to identify and prepare more children for the rigors of both the test and the schools’ demanding education.

“The SHSAT as a single admissions tool is an objective way to identify students who are eligible for seats in specialized high schools,” said the coalition statement, which was prepared by a demographically and ethnically diverse group of alumni led by graduates from Bronx H.S. of Science, Brooklyn Technical H.S. and Stuyvesant H.S., and including representatives from the five other specialized high schools. “Reliance on a test for admissions doesn’t allow for favoritism, bias, or politics to determine entry.”

The coalition, which represents more than 100,000 alumni of the schools, went on to call on the Department of Education to work to identify students who could qualify for the specialized high schools from communities now underrepresented among the student bodies, primarily children from African American and Latino families. The DOE should ensure that students and parents in underrepresented communities get better information regarding the test, and should help in preparation for the test. The coalition has studied this issue for some time, and offers its resources and insight to work with the DOE to solve this problem.

“In underrepresented communities, the New York City Department of Education should develop elementary and middle school enrichment/accelerated programs to prepare students for the SHSAT and the rigors of the specialized high schools and to help them become more college ready,” the statement read. “There should be more and better access to information regarding the SHSAT, the admissions process, and unique features of each specialized high school. Middle school students, their parents, teachers and other educators and community leaders/groups need information in order to engage the greatest number of students in the SHSAT process early on in a student’s academic career.”

The coalition also called on the DOE to reconfigure the Discovery Program used at one point to give students who fell just short of the cutoff point on the test for admission an opportunity to take enhanced coursework over the summer after the senior year to assess if they could be admitted that fall. The Discovery Program was successful in increasing African American and Latino representation among the student bodies, but was discontinued at some schools as the number of specialized high schools expanded from the original three—Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant.

There are now eight specialized high schools, including at least one in each borough, where admission is determined solely by a student’s performance on the SHSAT. The coalition was united in opposing multiple criteria in addition to the test—including the kind of subjective criteria used in admitting students to “screened schools”—which would change the meritocratic ideal that led to the creation of specialized high schools in the first place.

“Seemingly simple fixes to complicated problems almost invariably lead to added problems, including questions of whether the targeted population the city wants to bring into the specialized high schools are the ones who would benefit from the changes,” said Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation. “We must both preserve the test and work aggressively to expand opportunities for more families and students to prepare both for the test and the challenging curricula offered by the schools.”

“A hasty rejection of the traditional reliance on the test as the sole criterion has the potential to pit different disadvantaged communities against each other in a politicized competition,” said Soo Kim, president of the Stuyvesant H.S. Alumni Association. “We embrace diversity. We encourage the Department of Education to reexamine and validate the current SHSAT, to fix the Discovery Program, and to embrace the kinds of outreach programs that our alumni have established on our own. The first principle should be to do no harm.”

“A specialized high school education is hard. It’s a challenge,” said Jon Roberts, vice chairman of the Bronx Science Alumni Association. “The school system should prepare students for this challenge rather than throwing them in unprepared. Isn’t this the right way to get diversity of background?”

In their discussions over the last several months, the coalition confronted the reality that so few black and Latino children attend the specialized high schools. The consensus was that the best solution was for families and children from those underrepresented communities to maximize their opportunities to prepare for and succeed on the test and in the rigorous educational programming offered by the schools.

High percentages of students in the Specialized High Schools come from immigrant or first-generation immigrant families. DOE demographic and economic statistics reveal that the Specialized High Schools, including the three original ones, are far more socioeconomically diverse than other city high schools, and include far higher percentages of students who qualify for the free lunch program than many of the academically highest achieving screened schools which use multiple criteria for admission, similar to proposals concerning the specialized high schools as an alternative to the reliance on the test as the sole criteria.

“We want to be sure decision makers have all the information at their disposal in considering how to move forward,” said Cary. “We know what kind of education we received and we want every student, from every background, who can benefit from the challenges of the specialized high schools to have the same opportunities that we did.”

Coalition Statement of Core Principles

Admissions:

The SHSAT as a single admissions tool is an objective way to identify students who are eligible for seats in specialized high schools. Reliance on a single test for admissions doesn’t allow for favoritism, bias or politics to determine entry.

It is important to have a portfolio of New York City schools that continue to include a variety of admissions methods in order to best serve the diverse needs of New York City students. New York City currently has audition; educational option; screened; limited unscreened; unscreened and SHSAT admission high schools. The SHSAT differentiates the specialized high schools from the other high schools.

Maintaining Standards :

The standards and the rigor of the specialized high school programs and coursework (both content and level) must be maintained and strengthened.

Access and Preparation:

In communities that are under-represented in our specialized high schools, the New York City Department of Education should develop elementary and middle school enrichment/accelerated programs to prepare students for the SHSAT and the rigors of the specialized high schools and to help them become more college-ready.

There needs to be more and better access to information regarding the SHSAT, the admissions process, and unique features of each specialized high school. Middle school students, their parents, teachers and other professional educators and community leaders/groups need information in order to engage the greatest number of students in the SHSAT process early on in a student’s academic career.

The Discovery Program should be examined and reconfigured by the DOE in order to increase admissions to the specialized high schools by a more ethnically diverse group of qualified students. Once the number of specialized high schools expanded, the Discovery Program became optional in several of the specialized high schools.

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