What To Expect When You’re Expecting a New SHSAT Plan (Part #4): Desperately Seeking a Silver Lining

In response to my post, What To Expect When You’re Expecting a New SHSAT Plan (Part #2): Who Will Win and Who Will Lose When It Passes, a reader commented:

(W)ould be useful to also point out the specific types of students who would win under the new plan. Because, no way around it, some people will win. Less sarcasm, more content.

I would never deny my tendency towards sarcasm. It’s in the majority of my pieces, from Why Every Day Is Groundhog Day in NYC Schools to An Open Letter To Matt Damon Who Only Wants School Choice For His Kids – Not Yours.

But I wasn’t going for sarcasm when I suggested that all kinds of students would lose under the proposed SHSAT plan. I was being sincere.

It did take me awhile to figure out why I felt that way, weeks of reading pro and con editorials in a multitude of local, national, and even international publications.

Those who advocate scrapping the SHSAT exam as the sole metric for admissions to New York City’s Specialized High Schools and replacing it with a quota of the top 7 percent of students from every public middle school, as long as they were also in the top 25 percent of state test takers, genuinely believe that there is something special about the schools themselves.

That was the part that blew my mind.

My (FWIW, African-American) husband attended NYC’s top SHSAT school in the 1980s. Our oldest son graduated from the same school in 2017. Our younger one will be starting in September. (For the record, neither boy prepared for the SHSAT beyond taking a practice test every day of the summer, using commercially available prep books. But, then again, my sons weren’t forced to endure the disastrous K-8 education inflicted upon the majority of NYC’s minority students.)

Obviously, I’m not going to claim I see no value to these schools. But, as I wrote here, the value comes not from the schools, but from the kids in them.

(Note that, in the post I’m referencing, I was responding to a study that claimed there was no measurable benefit to attending an academically elite high school, in direct opposition to the arguments circulating now. A companion study, analyzed here, posited that parents are making a mistake when they choose schools that accept good students and graduate good students, rather than opting for schools that accept weaker students and then improve their results. Again, in direct opposition to what we’re being told about SHSAT schools.)

Overall, it’s been a disheartening month, and I am desperately searching for a silver lining.

Here’s what I came up with:

In a time when any opinion about, say, global warming, vaccination, or immigration, prompts cries of “Look at the evidence! Why are you ignoring the evidence?” the truth is that those both pro and con the SHSAT have no hard data.

Sure, the Mayor could get some evidence  – without the need for state approval – by changing admission policies at the five SHSAT schools not covered by Hecht-Calanda. Or, even simpler,  at the Screened High Schools that already use state test scores and grades as part of their metric – but without the top 7 percent restriction (and are actually more affluent and white than SHSAT schools).

The Mayor promised, “We’re certainly going to turn our attention to the screened schools… We’ll be back with some ideas.”

So, be on the look-out for that. (Sarcasm!)

Meanwhile the silver lining I’m clinging to is if the new admission plan goes into effect, we will finally have some tangible results.

We will finally know if what goes on inside the schools is responsible for graduating students who have won more Nobel prizes than some countries, or whether it’s the kids they attract.

We’ll find out whether those accepted will continue to take – and pass – record numbers of Advanced Placement (AP) exams, or whether that will prove impossible once incoming freshmen shift from those already versed in Algebra 1 (whether they learned it in middle school or taught themselves via prep books and tutors when their schools fell down on the job), or if they, like this student, got A’s in what they thought was Algebra, but was actually Pre-Algebra, which makes it less likely he’ll make it to Calculus by Senior Year.

We’ll learn, as this student did, whether getting A’s in a weaker program translates to A’s in a stronger one, and what that will do to the vaunted college admissions that currently are attributed to the quality of the schools.

We’ll see how many students drop out because they aren’t prepared for the rigorous curriculum, or, conversely, we’ll see if the curriculum is adjusted to accommodate those who come in without the skills previously tested by the SHSAT. (State tests gauge whether students are on grade level. The SHSAT assesses whether they’ve masted above grade level work, which is what allows these schools to progress at an accelerated pace.)

We will definitely get answers. (Though, I’m sure we’ll continue to debate what they mean.)

But at whose expense will those answers come?

The commentator I quoted asserted there will be those who benefit from the admissions change.

Yes, a percentage of kids who previously wouldn’t have qualified via the SHSAT will get in via the new grades and test scores method. But will that really be to their benefit?

There is research on both sides of the issue.

And that’s why I stand by my earlier statement: There will be multiple losers before we can begin to discern whether there are any winners.


What do you think?

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