Finding the Right School

Will Changing Admission to Specialized High Schools Change Specialized High Schools? How Do We Find Out?

This past weekend, 30,000 New York City 8th graders took the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) in hope of being among the 4,000 students accepted to one of the eight schools which use the SHSAT as its sole qualifying measure. This year, twenty percent of seats at every school are being set aside as part of a Discovery Program for students who didn’t make the cut-off, but are both low-income and attend a low-income middle-school. (In the past, the percentage was much lower, and applied to all low-income students.)

But that’s not enough for either Mayor Bill de Blasio or School Chancellor Richard Carranza. Even the Discovery Program will not make the SHSAT schools look the way they’d like them to look. Mayor de Blasio campaigned on a platform of making the SHSAT schools more “diverse,” as he defined it. But, during his first term, he was too busy with his own kids attending Screened and Specialized Schools, and pulling strings to help his Deputy Mayor do the same, to devote much attention to the cause.

Now that his children have graduated and he’s in his second term with nothing to lose, de Blasio and Carranza introduced a doomed bill in the NY State Senate that would eliminate the SHSAT in favor of accepting the top seven percent of students from every public middle school. The fact that they did it a few weeks before end of session suggests just how serious they were about getting it passed but, hey, it won them the headlines they crave!

Now, a new admissions year is upon us and Carranza, who previously was too busy being Chancellor in San Francisco, where his daughter attended a Screened high school, has come to the tardy realization that, actually, they don’t need State Senate authorization to change admission at all eight SHSAT high schools. Five of them are already under NYC control! Carranza declined to do so, however, citing that the schools wish to stay together. And we all know how sensitive Carranza is to what the SHSAT schools – and NYC parents – wish.

In the meantime, advocates charge that using grades instead of a single test score is a better predictor of students’ potential success. The Wall Street Journal calculated that, should the new plan go into effect, a percentage of accepted students would enter performing well below grade level on state tests (which are already way below the material covered on the SHSAT).

Will that make a difference in the character of the schools themselves?

In my experience, it’s not the SHSAT schools that make the kids. After all, they have the same Department of Education (DOE) teachers teaching DOE curriculum in DOE buildings. It’s the kids that make the SHSAT schools.

Change the kids, change the schools.

I don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong with the kids who would be admitted using the seven percent method. Except that many have been horribly cheated via a school system that made them think they were mastering Algebra when it was actually pre-Algebra.

I don’t think there will be any more disciplinary problems among them than there are in the traditionally-accepted cohort. And I expect graduation rates will remain the same. After all, NYC graduation rates have been going up for years… even as college readiness rates decline.

But here is what I do think will happen:

A school like Stuyvesant puts little weight into Regents scores. Because my younger son passed the Living Environment Regents, he was able to go straight into an AP Environmental Science course as a freshman. But, even though he’d passed the Algebra 2 Regents, Stuyvesant still made him take its own placement exam, and he was assigned to Geometry. My older son, in Freshman year, was given a double course of Algebra 1 and Geometry, due to his weaker performance on Stuy’s placement test. (He did, however, make it to AP World History much quicker; different kids, different interests, different skill levels, a concept the entire NYC, one-size-fits-all school system has trouble with.)

The goal is to make it so that all students have the chance to take calculus by Senior Year.

But what will happen if a significant number of students come in not ready for Algebra, as their state test scores would indicate. What happens if they require remediation to get even to the Algebra 1 level?

Courses will need to be changed. Sections will need to be shrunk and/or expanded. Teachers will need to be reassigned. Less students will make it to calculus, less students will be eligible to take AP and other advanced courses in freshman and sophomore years, so less such courses will be offered.

Bright, hard-working kids will still graduate with Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, et. al. diplomas. But will those diplomas mean what they used to mean? Not just to colleges – I’d even wager admissions will stay more or less the same – but to the students themselves?

We have a chance to find out. Instead of going back to the Senate for another virtue-signalling self-promotion session, NYC could change admissions to the five SHSAT schools they still control. And see what happens.

Not just for one year, not just for two, not even for the four years of a single graduating class, but for several graduating classes. We would see if accepting students based on grades, regardless of test scores either at or above grade level, necessitates a change in what courses are offered and how they are taught. If less kids make it to calculus, we’ll have data. If less students take fewer AP courses, and if they end up taking them later, we’ll know that, too.

We have the means to run an experiment. But, just like when they sat on an in-house report that indicated SHSAT scores are, in fact, a good predictor of school success, are the Mayor and Chancellor afraid of what those results might show?

What do you think?

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