We are, of course, only days into the de Blasio mayoralty. The wait-and-see period. Themes and general proposals have yet to be transformed into policy. And policy has yet to meet reality. So, it’s a time of eager/giddy/wary anticipation. At PwP, we’re particularly interested in how the matter of the SHSAT unfolds over the next year.
For those who haven’t been tracking the issue, during the campaign, Mayor de Blasio repeatedly made mention of his concerns about the admission process for the city’s Specialized High Schools, the crown jewels of the DoE system. In particular, during an October interview with the Daily News, then-candidate de Blasio pointed to the all-or-nothing SHSAT entrance exam as a significant and dubious factor in perpetuating the diversity challenges at the schools. In a city where the majority is black and Latino, he wondered, how could the premier public schools boast only 12% representation for those demographics? His solution: prepare the leaders of tomorrow by expanding the application portfolio (add application essays, grades, extra-curriculars into the mix) in order to identify more well-rounded students, not simply those with the knack (or the means) to score well on the SHSAT. For the new mayor, it seems, along with his plans for universal pre-K and expanded after-school, reforming Specialized High School admissions is very much a part of addressing the gaping disparities of opportunity in the city.
The idea is not uncontroversial. Parents and even students at the schools responded with outrage. They worry that changing the requirements for admission will degrade the quality of the student body and thereby the quality of the education to be had at places like Stuyvesant or Bronx Science. While elite colleges and private prep schools may have the staff resources to vet students in a complex and nuanced way, the NY public schools simply do not. The SHSAT, they claim, is therefore the best worst solution, an objective metric with a (relatively) low barrier to access. For the motivated and talented, they say, prep is readily available.
While we sympathize with these families’ concerns, we’re on the fence on the issue. Over the years, PwP has partnered with non-profits that work to provide K-12 educational support to disadvantaged students, including SHSAT prep to rising 7th and 8th graders. What we’ve seen in the classroom confirms the intricate, deeply tangled nature of the problem of advancing students from underrepresented populations into the specialized high schools. Opportunity involves sociology, culture, and psychology as much as it involves financial means. The concern that the over-burdened DoE might not be able to handle a more elaborate application portfolio is real, but even more urgent is the reality that test taking, test prep, and one-day-winner-takes-all performance are culturally predicated and highly specific skills, especially in 8th grade. However much natural talent a student may have, he or she has to be taught the patience, strategy and nerve that high-stakes testing requires. Not every student who has the potential to thrive in the rigorous environment of the specialized high schools has had the luck to learn those skills. Ironically, the best places to learn test-taking are often the schools that require test-taking to earn admission. As we say, in the face of all these chickens and eggs, we’re staying on the fence. Certainly, the mayor’s proposal (we await the plan and then the policy) is imperfect, but it merits serious consideration when the stakes are so high.
In the end, though, change looks unlikely. The current admissions process is legally mandated at the state level. Changes to the system would require action not only from the mayor and city council, but also from the state legislature and the governor. According to the report that spurred this debate, The Meaning of Merit, this is only true for the original three, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science & Brooklyn Tech. Theoretically, admission to the five newer specialized schools’ could be altered with approval on just the city level. Nonetheless, the SHSAT is likely going to become yet another line item in the years-long negotiation between Albany and Gracie Mansion. For our part, we look forward to watching the whole business unfold and will keep you updated.