Why NYC’s SHSAT Diversity Plan Failed – And Why It Will Keep Failing

This year, New York City’s annual day of hand-wringing and mystified confusion fell on March 8, 2017. That’s when everyone from the New York Times to the Daily News to Chalkbeat wrote their Why, Oh, Why Did Only (Insert Tiny Number That Varies Slightly From Year to Year) Minority Students Get Offers to Specialized High Schools?

The befuddlement was particularly acute this year, because in June of 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio and School Chancellor Carmen Farina had already taken their victory lap, boasting about how they’d solved the problem via a summer test prep initiative. The program, initially budgeted for 500 students, barely managed to scrape up 300, and, as I noted here, was declared an unqualified success an entire month before any of the kids had even sat down to take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT).

Then again, just in case said initiative wasn’t the total and utter triumph that they fully expected it to be, the Department of Education also announced that, starting in October of 2017,  the  SHSAT would no longer include a Scrambled Paragraphs or a Logical Reasoning section. It would be replaced with revising and editing grammar, similar to what you’d find on the SAT or ACT.

There. Problem solved forever.

Except, not exactly.

Here’s why not:

In 2017, 3.8 percent of offers to attend NYC’s eight SHSAT schools went to Black students, while 6.5 percent went to Hispanic ones. That’s roughly 10% of the 5000+ teens who passed, out of the 28,000+ who took the exam. This year, 524 kids were accepted. Which is actually down from 530 last year.

I suspect that if all the 300 kids who participated in the summer intensive program were among them, the DOE would have been tripping over themselves to shout it from the rooftops. Even half of the kids. Even a third. The fact that the alleged good news the DOE chose to focus on was that more minority children took the test, boasting that participation went up 50% in underserved schools targeted by the initiative, without mentioning how many of those testers actually got offers, pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the initiative’s success. (In my own experience, the minority kids who get into Specialized High Schools tend to come from private schools and public Gifted & Talented programs, like my son did.)

This is just like when the Mayor excitedly tweeted out an NYU study which said that children in Universal Pre-K are more likely to take the Gifted & Talented Kindergarten entry test. There was no word about how many of them actually qualified. That told you something, too.

So why did this initiative – which, don’t worry, despite not generating any positive results is still being expanded for next year – fail so spectacularly?

It started too late.

The SHSAT includes material, in both math and English, that isn’t covered in a standard NYC public school curriculum. Hence the abundance of qualifiers from accelerated private schools, G&T programs and – let us not, under any circumstances underestimate this last piece – private test prep classes which many kids start as early as 3rd and 4th grade.

If your child already knows the material, then test prep primarily involves learning the SHSAT format, timing strategies, and repeated practice. If your child does not know the material, teaching them format, timing and practice is pointless.

And that’s presumably what happened in the city’s summer prep course. There is absolutely no way that you can cram what a child did not learn in K-8th grade into three summer months.

If NYC is serious about “evening the playing field” in high school admissions, then the only option is to improve their K-8 education. Really. There are no short-cuts, three month long or even the three years some are suggesting.

The DOE has six initiatives to diversify Specialized High Schools. The majority of them deal with identifying talented 6th and 7th graders and offering them an intensive education away from their regular school. Not a single one of the initiatives even considers improving K-8 education for all.

That doesn’t sound like a triumph. That sounds like they’ve already admitted defeat.

What do you think?

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