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What Those Targeting the SHSAT Don’t Really Understand About the Specialized High School Picture

school announcement

Mayor de Blasio announces specialized high school plans (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

One of the most controversial topics in the New York City public education system is the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and its use as the sole tool for admission to the city’s eight premier STEM-oriented specialized high schools. There has always been a robust debate about the admissions process, because while the New York City public schools are predominantly African-American and Latino (about 68% of students), these populations represent only 10.4% of the students admitted to the specialized high schools.

As an African-American student and recent graduate of one of these specialized high schools, Brooklyn Technical High School, it pains me to see my peers and others writing op-eds using severely misguided arguments in opposition to the test.

While we must solve the lack of racial diversity in the specialized high school system, abolishing the test is not the right way to do it, for several reasons.

As an African-American student at and now graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, I of course am disheartened by the low admission rate of Black and Latino students. It is something I noticed as soon as I entered freshman year, especially coming from Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Crown Heights, my middle school where almost everyone looked like me. So during my four years in high school, I decided to take action to help remedy the issue.

I participated as part of the Department of Education’s Specialized High School Outreach team, where hundreds of students come to gain information about the city’s eight specialized high schools and the SHSAT. I offered a student perspective of the specialized high school experience, advised students about preparing for the SHSAT, and counseled them about what to expect on test day.

Perhaps most significantly, my father and I founded a tutoring program designed to prepare underserved middle school students for the SHSAT in my home neighborhood of Southeast Queens. It was during this program where I saw so clearly that students simply weren’t receiving adequate tools to succeed from the New York City public school system. Throughout the course of this tutoring program, I have had the opportunity to interact with dozens of students. Ultimately, I have been impressed with their enthusiasm and engagement, yet frustrated by the students’ inadequate preparation — many did not have simple multiplication and division skills.

It upsets me that all of these students have ample potential, but they don’t stand a chance during the specialized high school admissions test due to the lack of strength in curriculum and pedagogy at their elementary and middle schools. It became quite apparent to me that the mayor and other anti-SHSAT officials have used the test as a scapegoat for the lack of diversity in the specialized high school system, rather than aiming to reform the weak learning environments, standards, and curriculum in the city’s public elementary and middle schools.

Moreover, it appears that many of these officials have simply dismissed the drastic consequences of abolishing the test. The SHSAT itself offers the opportunity for a standard, relatively unbiased opportunity across the city, with each student interested in specialized high school admission taking the same exact test in a given year. If the SHSAT is abolished, the main tool of admission will be students’ middle school grade point averages (GPAs).

We know every student can’t take nearly the same exact classes and have all teachers across the city teach similar curriculum and grade the same exact way. In reality, it is pretty easy to get an ‘A’ in an arithmetic class passed off as something more challenging, and equally easy to get a ‘C’ or a ‘D’ in a very challenging class where there may even be significant grade deflation. Sending a student with straight A’s in fairly easy classes that inflate grades to a specialized high school would be extremely unfair and discouraging to students who have challenged themselves with difficult classes and didn’t get the grades they desired.

It would also be doing these particular straight-A students a disservice to send them to specialized high schools, where the workload is much more difficult and requires prior mastery of fairly difficult topics (topics that are covered on the SHSAT). The SHSAT allows schools to test students’ abilities in subjects, particularly math and English language arts, that are imperative to have a strong foundation in before entering a specialized high school. The pace is fast at the specialized high schools, meaning the importance of a solid foundation in subjects across the board is essential.

There’s also a misleading narrative out there about the racial demographics of the specialized high school system. As I mentioned, it was quite easy to notice how many people didn’t look like me during my time at Brooklyn Technical High School.

But, I have never in my academic career felt that my school was any less of a melting pot than the city it resides in. Part of why there is such a popular misconception about the demographics of the specialized high schools is because of the misleading statistic that the schools are 60% Asian. Although this statistic is broadly accurate, it becomes significantly less relevant to the larger discussion when you realize the different demographics that are included in that daunting number. 

For example, I’ve met and been friends with many students from Bangladesh, Korea, India, Uzbekistan, the Philippines, and beyond, all of which are covered in the category of Asian and the 60% number so often thrown around. The reality here is indicative of the lack of nuance in the overall discussion around the specialized high schools, the test, and diversity.

In all, the lack of Black and Latino students in specialized high schools is a problem that absolutely needs to be addressed, but abolishing the SHSAT is the wrong way of going about it. The mayor and schools chancellor need to stop using the test as a scapegoat for their inadequacies in providing a strong education to elementary and middle school students throughout New York City.

Amir Davis is a 2020 Brooklyn Tech graduate who will be attending Stanford University in the fall.

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