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City's Elite High School Admissions Exam Gets First Overhaul in 20 Years

By Amy Zimmer | January 19, 2017 4:52pm
 Specialized high schools like Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science  require a high score on the specialized high school admissions test.
Specialized high schools like Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science require a high score on the specialized high school admissions test.
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MANHATTAN — The city's high-stakes Specialized High School Admissions Test — the exam eighth graders take to get into the city’s eight most elite schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science — is getting its first overhaul in 20 years in a bid to boost diversity, officials said.

But experts say the exam — which will be administered starting in the fall — will do little to address institutional issues that plague the city's most elite academies in an already highly segregated school system.

“Tests change all the time, but outcomes rarely change,” said Bige Doruk, CEO and president of the tutoring company Bright Kids NYC, noting that changing the exam will likely not change the fact that certain middle schools in the city act as feeders to the specialized high schools.

Of roughly 5,100 students who received offers to this year’s incoming freshman classes at the eight schools requiring the Specialized High School Admissions Test, just 4 percent were black and roughly 6 percent were Latino, according to DOE data.

A study from the Center for NYC Affairs found that 60 percent of students the specialized high schools came from just 45 middle schools.

“Kids who prepare for this test, prepare for hours. That’s not going to change,” she said, noting that students come to her tutors two to three times a week for several months in addition to taking additional “cram” courses.

Rather than expanding admissions criteria, the DOE decided to redesign the exam created by Pearson, the testing company. The revamped exam increases the testing time to 180 minutes, from 150. There will be 114 questions, up from 95, with 57 items for the English section and 57 items for math.

Other changes include five math questions that will require students to show their work and provide the correct answers rather than pick from multiple choice options and 20 questions in the English section asking students to edit and revise sentences to show their writing and grammar skills, replacing as first reported in the Wall Street Journal.

The test will no longer include the dreaded “scrambled paragraphs,” where students had to reassemble sentences in the right order and logical reasoning questions that are like word puzzles on law school admissions exams.

DOE spokesman Will Mantel said the changes will make the tests more reflective of all students' classwork.

“These changes to the SHSAT make it fairer and more equitable for our students by better reflecting what they actually learn in class, and now our focus is on getting practice items to schools, students, and community organizations in every neighborhood across the city," he said.

But David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, worried that the changes might even be more of a barrier to equity than the current test, which Mayor Bill de Blasio had campaigned to get rid of, he noted.

While the scrambled paragraph exercise may not have reflected “real world” skills, they did tap into whether a student demonstrated a “logical mind,” he said.

The new English questions will benefit those who have more exposure to sitting with parents who edit their homework, helping them learn how to revise and edit, he said.

“It will increase inequity rather than decrease it,” he said.

A handbook with two full-length practice exams will not be available until June.

Tucked in with the changes are the first-ever inclusion of so-called field test questions — dummy questions that will not count towards a student's score but are used by the Department of Education to help craft future exams.

Starting in the fall, 20 of the test’s 114 questions — or nearly 18 percent — will be field test items, according to a DOE memo explaining the changes. The exam will not indicate in any way which questions are real questions and which are field test questions.

“Students should not spend any time trying to determine which items are scored and which items are field test items,” the DOE memo said.

Field testing has long been controversial for families worried that their children are being used as guinea pigs for more tests. The city, however, says the items are needed to help create more effective tests.

“Field testing is a critical component of the test development process, and helps to ensure that tests are reliable, valid, and free of bias,” the city wrote in its explanation. “By embedding field test items on the SHSAT, NYCDOE will be able to further ensure that test items are free of bias for New York City’s diverse student population.”

Some families, however, fear while the field test items don’t count, their impact on students taking this test — which is the sole factor determining admission — could be real.

“You can’t use somebody as a guinea pig on something that has such important repercussions,” said Elissa Stein, a Brooklyn Tech parent who runs a service called High School 411 helping other parents navigate the high school admissions process.

“When it comes to testing strategy,” she explained, “you have to work so hard on when to let go of a question. If 20 questions don’t matter, what does that do to a kids’ psyche?

"They added more time to the test," she continued, "but they added more questions and a significant number don’t count. It’s an added variable that puts more pressure on kids.”