Currently the only factor to determine admissions to the New York City specialized high schools is a 114 question mainly multiple choice question about math and reading. Out of 100,000 8th graders — 25,000 who take the SHSAT test — 5,000 are offered spots in one of the eight specialized high schools.
There are specialized high schools in pretty much every city and also throughout the world. Most do not just use a single three hour test for admissions.
Other factors that could be included are middle school GPA, school recommendation letter, essay, interview, portfolio, among factors.
How can we know if the admissions processes ‘worked’? In other words, what is the goal? This isn’t an easy question.
An analogy that illustrates the difficulties of this is how to distribute tickets to something like the Super Bowl. Who ‘deserves’ to go to the Super Bowl? Right now if you have enough money you can easily get Super Bowl tickets, but is does a rich person ‘deserve’ to go to this game just because they are rich? It doesn’t seem so. What about a die-hard fan of one of the teams who watches every single game and paints their car the team colors and if they could go to the game would paint themselves the team color? That’s someone who really wants to go to the game. But is wanting to go to the game enough? What if there is someone who really wants to go to the game and will be very enthusiastic about the game but that person does not really know much about the rules of football? Does that person deserve to go to the game more than someone who studies the game and will enjoy the game at a much deeper level even though maybe they aren’t as enthusiastic?
There’s no right answer to the Super Bowl question, different people can have different opinions though most people would agree that just having a lot of money isn’t the most fair way to decide who gets to attend this game.
When it comes to the specialized high schools, who deserves to be admitted? There might be some students who really want to go to the schools but they are behind in their academics and they are not going to get such high grades there but they will still benefit from the experience and they will be enthusiastic and try their hardest every day. But unlike the Super Bowl where the fans don’t really affect what goes on in the game, in a specialized school the participants are also the players. So if the goal of the specialized high school is to get students into Ivy League colleges, then maybe desire to go to the school is not enough. They have to be already accelerated in their learning after the eight years of schooling they have already had. It is a tough question and everyone might have their own answer and depending on what their answer is about what the goal of the specialized high school is, they can determine after the fact whether or not the admissions policy ‘worked’ if the goal was met.
The current process of using just the SHSAT has produced, over the years, a group of students in the specialized high schools that have seemed to thrive. They get into Ivy League schools. They have the top math team. They have the top debate team. They have many students who become semi-finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent competition. So in that sense some might say that the admissions process worked. But since the admissions policy is based on such a narrow metric it opens up the question of whether changing the policy could make the collection of students even better by some metric.
Using the SHSAT is not perfect. Over the years there have been students who have really struggled at Stuyvesant. It isn’t a large percent, but I’ve known students who get averages in the 70s and who even start to cut classes and even fail them. When that happens it is hard not to think that if the admissions policy were different maybe that student would have not been admitted and in his place maybe a student who would have been more successful would have been there in his place and that would be a good thing.
The goal of this fourteen part series which could be compiled into a novella is not for me to conclude at the end that the current system is perfect as it is or even that it is good. I do think that just using the SHSAT does not produce the best possible group of students. There are students who get into the specialized high schools who don’t thrive there and ones who don’t get in who would thrive there.
But I also think that the selection process does produce a very good group of students and I have a theory about this. Imagine if there were a different single criteria for admissions to the specialized school and it was one that was even less relevant than the 114 question test. Imagine that the test was just how well you could do on the vintage 1980s videogame Pac Man. That would be absurd, right? But the schools are still what they are and families are told about this new absurd admissions policy. Now of course there are some kids who are better at video games than other kids and that doesn’t mean that they are better fits for the specialized high schools. But families know for years that this is the way to get into the specialized schools, as crazy and irrelevant as it is. Now a game like Pac Man is one that anyone can master, eventually. Some people might be more naturally good at it and maybe those people don’t need to practice as much as people who are not naturally good at it. But the people who really want to do well on this new absurd test are going to do what it takes to achieve that. So maybe it takes a few hundred hours of practice, but at the end it is possible (and I know this is a very strange hypothetical so I’m not saying we should do this) that the students who were able to get good at Pac Man after knowing that this was what the test was and because they really wanted to get in and to do whatever it takes to get in despite the ridiculousness of the contest having seemingly nothing to do with succeeding at a specialized high school, maybe you would end up with a group of students who would succeed at the specialized high school. What all those kids would have in common was the ability to have a long term plan to play by the rules and to master something that can be mastered by anyone who puts in the proper amount of preparation.
Well, I’m not suggesting that we make the test less relevant than it already is, I’m just pondering whether or not it matters how relevant the test is as long as everyone knows the rules and has ample time to prepare for it.
Actually this post is about how the SHSAT could be made more relevant.
The 114 multiple choice test on math and reading is really a relic of the past. It seems to be based on the SAT which has its own problems. So one idea I have is to add more sections. Have a written essay section. Have a science section. Have a history section. This would make it a lot harder to do test prep for.
Another thing I think they should have is a part where a student watches a 30 minute video of a teacher teaching a lesson on something that they haven’t already learned and then the students have to answer questions about it. Maybe this includes higher level questions to test for deeper understanding. It’s 2021, what would be so bad about having students on laptops watching short lectures and seeing if they can absorb new material like they would be expected to at the specialized school. This would also be difficult to test prep for so it would take away whatever advantage students get from test prep.
How about they give all the students a reading list of about fifty books. Then there are questions about five of the books, selected at random. The student who reads all 50 books will do well on that part while a student who only reads ten of the books is likely to do poorly on that section.
I think that schools should rate the students, at least with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about whether they think the student is likely to succeed at the specialized school.
I think that GPA could be a component though I would expect that most students who want to go to the specialized schools have pretty good GPAs and this wouldn’t change the final results by very much.
I think the ‘trick questions’ on the math especially should be removed since those check for test prep more than just intelligence.
I think all students should get more time for the test. Who says that 3 hours for 114 questions is the perfect amount of time?
So I definitely support modernizing the test and making it more relevant.
But I can’t promise you that this will fix what many people consider ‘the problem’ that it results in offers to too many Asian students. Making the test better might even cause that ‘problem’ to get ‘worse.’
As I’ve said in previous posts, there seem to be just three ways to make the specialized schools less Asian. 1) Have a quota system (which I’m told is illegal), 2) Start much earlier in the pipeline with outreach and helping Latino and Black students get prepared for whatever the admissions policy is, or 3) Find a legal way to get the same results as a quota system. This third way, the so called 7% plan, will be the topic of the next post.
In case you’re getting weary, there are just three parts remaining.