Proposed Changes to the SHSAT: Why the Rush?

In June of 2014, legislators in Albany introduced a bill that would revoke the 1971 law designating the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the sole criterion for admission to Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, and Bronx Science. Mayor Bill de Blasio supports adding multiple criteria to the specialized high school admissions process. The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation drafted a response to the proposed change and the bill was ultimately stalled until next January. 

There is a legitimate issue at hand – not enough African American and Latino students are enrolled in specialized high schools. The NYC public school population is 40 percent Hispanic, 28 percent black, 15 percent Asian, 15 percent white, and 2 percent other.

The population of the specialized high school system is 7 percent Hispanic, 5 percent black, 53 percent Asian, 23 percent white, and 9 percent other.

Brooklyn Tech is slightly more diverse than the rest of the system; 13 percent of Tech students are Hispanic and 14 percent are black.

The problem is that adding multiple criteria to the admissions process for specialized high schools won’t necessarily solve this issue. The bill introduced in June called for a “power score” that takes into account each student’s SHSAT score, middle school attendance, GPA, and state test scores. This might keep lazy students who are just good test takers out of the specialized schools, but in theory, the same students who pass the SHSAT will tend to be the students who had high GPAs and test scores in middle school. The ethnic composition of the specialized high school system will probably not shift substantially, and the top middle schools with stricter grading standards will be punished when GPAs are taken into account.

If the “power score” system doesn’t work, the specialized high schools may require essays or interviews, mirroring the application process of other selective high schools around the city. This raises a new slew of questions. Will students have to report their ethnicity when applying? If two students with identical statistics were interviewed, how often would the underrepresented minority student be admitted versus the white or Asian applicant? How will the administrative challenge of adding an admissions committee be handled?

Bilal Nadeem ’15 believes that “adding multiple criteria will make applying to high school similar to the college admissions process. Middle school students shouldn’t have to go through that kind of stress.” Essays and interviews also favor wealthy applicants who can afford intensive coaching, a problem that has plagued college admissions for decades.

The real question is, why the rush to add multiple criteria? For the past 43 years there has only been one criterion; there is no reason to push a new bill through the state legislature immediately without considering its implications. The city needs to spend the next few years conducting studies to figure out the best way to increase black and Latino enrollment in specialized high schools while maintaining an objective admissions process.

Andrew Pokorny ’16, says, “a lot of smart kids don’t take the SHSAT because they don’t know about it. Going to a specialized school means leaving the community for them.” The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation has suggested outreach to black and Latino communities in order to spread information about the benefits of a specialized high school education. The Foundation also proposes that the city expand the Discovery program, an alternative admissions path to specialized high schools for disadvantaged students who score just below the cutoff.

The SHSAT is by no means perfect, but as of right now it is the best option available. Until legislators can introduce an admissions process that increases black and Latino enrollment in specialized high schools while retaining objectivity, the SHSAT should remain in use. There is definitely a problem at hand, but that doesn’t mean we have to rush for a solution at the expense of logic.

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