arts in schools · Finding the Right School · screened nyc schools

Second Round Shenanigans: Hunter, Special Music School & Other NYC Schools’ Subjective Admissions

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he was running for President — as a Democrat, after being elected in NYC first as a Republican, then as an Independent — on Sunday, November 24th.

As with other political candidates, I am only going to talk about his education policy record. Here are two major changes Bloomberg made while mayor of NYC:

Bloomberg’s tweaks, however, didn’t apply to everyone. Hunter College Elementary and High School still have their own admissions criteria. So does the Kindergarten through 12th grade Special Music School. So does a selective middle school like The Center School, and high schools that have recently been in the news like Columbia Secondary School, and Bard Early College.

All of these schools — along with multiple others — feature a two-step admissions process. In addition to some sort of preliminary standardized academic screen, a review of grades and state test scores, or a combination of both, there is also an interview portion. (The Special Music School does a musical assessment, Hunter HS has an essay in lieu of an interview.)

What are they looking for in this Second Round of Admissions? Nobody knows. 

Or, at least, no one will say. (Parents whose children have been through the process report Hunter seeming to favor highly verbal candidates who can transition easily from activity to activity, and make quick inferences with only a few clues. In other words, as covered in greater detail, here, kids who can pick up information even in the face of weak teaching. My husband, who attended Hunter Elementary and is now a teacher himself, summarizes it as, “They’re not looking for the smartest kids, they’re looking for the kids who are the easiest to teach.”) 

Hunter Elementary no longer even lets parents find out their own child’s score on the Stanford-Binet IQ test! You pay for it, but you don’t get to see it! Hunter simply notifies prospective families whether their child qualified for a follow-up assessment. (For 2019, notification will come this Friday, December 6.) After that, of 300 (out of 3000) finalists, 25 boys and 25 girls are admitted. 

On the basis of what? Who knows!

The Special Music School is even more of a black box. Over 800 children apply. No more than 15 are accepted for Kindergarten. 

On the basis of what? Who knows!

As one parent wrote me:

They were in the audition for about 45 minutes. The first portion of the audition all kids were together in a room and then they were separated and each kid went individually to a room with one of the testers. According to my child, in the individual session they played 2 notes and the child needed to say whether the second one is higher, lower or the same as the first one.

Another added:

My daughter applied to the Special Music School last year. There were two auditions. In the first they took her to a room and asked her to match pitch and whether pitches were higher or lower. They also did a series of clapping exercises and asked her to mimic the patterns. It was very fast. In fact, she felt like she did something wrong it was so fast. 

About six weeks later we got a call saying she had attained a qualifying score. They brought I think 25 parents in the room and told us that we were the parents of the top scoring 25 kids (they had taken the kids to a second room). They said they had room for 20 kids and asked each parent in a circle why their kid should go to the school and their background in music. The overwhelming majority of parents were musicians (we are not). Parents started talking about how they work with their children on modal theory and harmonizing 3rds and 5ths. It got a little intense. 

The second evaluation for the kids seems to be geared towards measuring discipline. There were a series of instruments in the room and they asked them to play with the instruments however they wanted. My daughter chose to be a musical airplane and ran around the room singing. She umm…did not make the cut. Lol. 

What I would say is that they are watching your children as much for behavior as much as talent. My daughter is free-spirited and high energy. Even though she was able to do all the testing exercises she just wasn’t a great fit.

Second Round assessments and interviews are supposed to determine which children would be the “best fit.” On the basis of what?

You already know the answer to that.

According to whom?

The people conducting the interviews. Or the observations. At The Center School, kids are interviewed by other kids.

Do Hunter or SMS or Center or the Screened Middle and High Schools need to reveal their criteria? Explain it? Justify it? Prove no string pulling or other forms of corruption were involved?


This isn’t like the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) where everyone gets a score and you can compare it to the scores of other accepted students (and also ask to see your child’s test to make sure it was marked correctly). This isn’t like the public school Gifted & Talented exam where, again, you can review your child’s answers, see the score, then get entered into a (presumably) non-subjective lottery.

Nobody cares about your “personality score” ala Harvard, or how “well-rounded” you are (as if everyone has equal access or is even aware that factors outside of school are being considered). It also helps kids who are young for their grade, since only their score is taken into consideration, not their self-discipline or “maturity.” (Another reason why picking the optimal test day based on your child’s birthdate matters.)

I disagreed with a lot of what Mayor Bloomberg did during his tenure. But he did try to make admissions more of an open and even playing field.

Where do you stand on the transparency of NYC’s school application process? Tell us in the Comments below!

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