2018-08-15 / Editorials

Don’t Take The Special Out Of Specialized High Schools

The city Department of Education just released the results of a study it commissioned in 2013. According to The New York Times, the study shows a strong correlation between doing well on the SHSAT (Specialized High Schools Admissions Test) and the ability of students to excel in the specialized high schools, which is the crux of the matter. If a student cannot handle the curriculum, it would be an injustice to the student who will flounder and not learn anything, and to the student who could have excelled but was not accepted into the specialized school. Also it would slow down the pace of the rest of the class. If they start making exceptions in order to admit students who did not pass the test, where will it end? There will be endless haggling over this or that requirement: How high of a GPA? What is the cut-off for class rank? Once that is figured out, that class rank might show a student has promise, but doesn’t guarantee the student is at the level required for a specialized high school such as a Stuyvesant, Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech. That GPA may have been influenced by grading curves. The SHSAT is the golden standard. Other metrics are not standardized, and are thus less fair.

Either the students are able to handle the curriculum, or the curriculum would have to be altered to allow students to graduate. We would wager no one would explicitly agree to the latter. That is why the study is important. It shows those who pass the SHSAT will get the most out of attending a specialized high school, and thus validates the use of the SHSAT as the sole entry requirement for the specialized high schools.

To help balance the demographics, a better approach would be to equalize disparities in preparation and coaching of students to pass the test. We recognize there are many students with great potential who only lack opportunity, but making entrance requirements more subjective (and potentially just plain lowered) is a bandaid approach. It would basically turn the specialized high schools into any other city high school—maybe somewhat better than average. The NYC specialized high schools are like a gem that we must preserve in its original state. We want to see improved access for black and Latino students, who will surely pass the SHSAT in the same proportions given the same early preparation and opportunities. To do this fairly the city must focus on reducing class sizes so students in every neighborhood can get the attention they deserve; increase access to rigorous training for those students who can handle it; put gifted and talented programs in every district; and make available test preparation for students throughout the city. We also need to start thinking about opening more specialized high schools for when there are many more students than slots in the existing specialized high schools, so we don’t have high-performing children with nowhere to go—or quotas, which are inherently unfair. This country needs more highly skilled people entering the workforce to strengthen our economy and world standing. The more the better. It would be a travesty to turn away high-achieving students solely due to lack of space. We should also reinvest in vocational high schools. Not everyone wants to go to college, or should. There are young people who would like a vocational career, and they would be well compensated for their needed skills. And let us not forget to include a generous helping of the arts that enrich life and stimulate young minds—both performance and appreciation of the visual arts, music, creative writing, etc.

To sum up: yes, we can help more students achieve the scores needed by training them better, and have a few more specialized schools to accommodate the population of gifted and talented; but no, we should not dilute the existing test or standards.

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