Finding the Right School · School Choice

Why I Make My Son Study For the “Ridiculous” SHSAT

My older son graduated from a New York City Specialized High-School this June.

Now it’s my younger one’s turn to prep for the qualifying Specialized High-School Admissions Test (SHSAT).

“You realize how ridiculous this is,” my 13 year-old posited after taking yet another practice test from one of the many books we’ve purchased for the occasion.

I do. But I also realize something he doesn’t – the SHSAT has a covert value far beyond mere high-school admissions.

The SHSAT has been revamped for 2018 admissions. Previously it featured a section called Scrambled Paragraphs, where five sentences were listed in random order, and students needed to rearrange them. Any one mistake rendered the entire section incorrect. A very useful life skill should you be walking along one day, reading a book and, oops, you fall into a shredder.

This year, there will be a grammar section instead.

There have also been cosmetic changes to the math portion, with four multiple choice answers instead of five, and a handful of grid-in answers.

And yet, as my son so astutely noted, it remains ridiculous.

My husband is an MIT-trained nuclear engineer turned middle-school math and physics teacher. He agrees that the majority of the problems on the SHSAT have little to do with applications you might see in the real world.

But at least when our son gets a math problem wrong on a practice test, he accepts that he made a mistake and goes to my husband for help figuring out why.

When our son gets an answer wrong on the English section, he comes to me – and vehemently argues about it.

A couple of points:

  1. I didn’t make the test.
  2. I agree that in the English section the questions are much more open to interpretation and you can certainly make a case for his response also being correct.
  3. I am forcing him to take the test, anyway.


Not because I think SHSAT schools are the be-all, end-all. Having already gone through the system once, I know the teachers there range from terrific to terrifically mediocre (one told my son, “Don’t think, just tell me what’s in the book”), the curriculum can be badly organized and only skim the surface, and the classes crowded and rushed.

They still beat the alternative in NYC, like schools where over 50% of students graduate non-college ready. Citywide, the number of those who don’t require remedial courses is 37%. At one school, it’s a horrifying 1.9%.

This, despite highly-touted rising graduation rates, and an epidemic of “A” students, even though, as one teen learned, an “A” in some schools isn’t the same as in another. (It’s one of the reasons I don’t have a problem with the SHSAT being used exclusively to decide admissions, rather than grades and other factors, like Mayor de Blasio would prefer. He claims it discriminates against Black and Hispanic applicants. But the SHSAT is a more uniform standard, and studies have shown that using gades and other factors would actually work against minority students, despite de Blasio’s assertions to the contrary. Plus, the fact that only a few dozen middle-schools regularly send kids to top high-schools goes toward accountability in a way that a flood of inflated A’s and meaningless high-school diplomas doesn’t.)

But that’s not the main reason I am making my son take the SHSAT. I’m not even sure that, if he gets in, I’ll send him to a Specialized High School. We’re considering other options as well.

The main reason I am making him take the SHSAT is because I want to drive home the point that, in life, you often have to jump through some pretty ridiculous hoops in order to succeed.

In a culture of instant gratification, of “only do what makes you happy” and “everyone gets a trophy just for showing up,” I want to give my son a hands-on lesson in having to get through tedious, arbitrary, irrelevant, “no fun” grunt work to achieve your ultimate objective.

I want to show him that, sometimes, you have to give the answer authority is looking for, even if you disagree with it. Our pediatrician calls these tests, “Please the Idiot.”

You have to get past the gatekeeper by giving them what they want so they’ll give you what you want. That’s a very particular skill.

Ultimately, just like the best part of SHSAT schools is the hard-working kids who go to them, the best part of the SHSAT isn’t that prepping for it teaches kids math or English.

The best part is that prepping for the SHSAT teaches kids how to deal with the ridiculous – and still come out ahead.

That’s way better a lesson than admission to a Specialized High School.


What do you think?

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