NEW YORK—Anticipation lingered in the air on Saturday as a crowd of parents thronged the Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the eight specialized public high schools in the city that require a single academic test to get in.
The test was on. Thousands of eighth graders were putting their math and English skills to use inside the fort-like building adjoining Fort Greene Park, while the parents, gazes fixed on the entrances, awaited their return.
And then the doors opened. The children surged out with smiles of relief—parents gave hugs of recognition followed by the urging question: How was it?
“It was fair, but it wasn’t as fair as a regular test would be,” said Ashley Segnibo, explaining that the math test included material she had not been learning in class yet.
But that was the only fairness caveat presented by more than a dozen students and parents interviewed.
Every year about 30,000 students take the test, called SHSAT, and some 6,000 get a seat.
Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to change the admission criteria, saying the current form handicaps students with less-to-no money for test prep—often times children of color.
Though seven in ten students are black or Hispanic in the city’s public schools, only one in ten is black or Hispanic at the specialized high schools.
But the Education Department already offers a hundred-page test prep handbook for free. Some students confirmed they received the handbook from their school and had been using it to prepare.
“It was all right I guess,” said Stephanie Guevara after finishing the test. She had been using the handbook for a few weeks, a couple of hours a day. But still, the math was tough to her and she wasn’t confident about her results.
Imani Williams was in a similar situation. She had been studying the handbook after finishing her homework for about two weeks.
“If I don’t get in, there’s other choices,” Williams said. Her mother would rather have her stay at her current school, STAR Early College, as it covers both middle and high school grades and provides successful college prep.
Serious Test Prep
Some applicants, however, received a completely different level of preparation.
“It was fair,” said Marcus Yuan, evaluating the test in a strict, emotionless tone. He had been preparing intensively for the test since the seventh grade.
“It wasn’t that hard. It was just very boring,” said Camilla Noelie. She had been preparing for the SHSAT on-and-off since the sixth grade.
Diana Sokolova, said the entire first semester was focused on SHSAT prep at her private school, the Big Apple Academy. On top of that she had been receiving test prep tutoring twice a week since August.
Four out of five Big Apple students get accepted to one of the specialized high schools. Even though many of its students come with limited English skills, the schools are popular with the Russian and Ukrainian communities.
Two bills were introduced in Albany that would shift the admission criteria, as the change needs to be made on the state level. They would introduce multiple measures to the judgment, including attendance, grades, and state tests results. It is not clear how much chance the bills have of passing.
Meanwhile the city’s contract for the SHSAT, currently with Pearson publisher, is expiring.
The Education Department already received bids for a new test that is supposed to include an essay—a digression from the current form of pure multiple-choice questions.