SHSBADI at 10: Lessons Learned and the Path Forward

We realized that both the admissions process and the school system had changed from the time of our attendance. Many of us came to Stuyvesant by way of gifted classes in our neighborhood public schools. Until the 90s, gifted education was decentralized, with accelerated SP (“special progress”) and IGC (“intellectually gifted”) classes in local schools giving academically talented kids in every city neighborhood an opportunity to receive instruction in the above-grade level material they would encounter on the SHSAT. Today, that opportunity is concentrated in just a handful of schools.

Today, no other school system in the country uses a single test to determine who is admitted to their most competitive public schools. None uses the SHSAT, which is distinctive in its content and format, and mysterious in its scoring. It is not aligned with what most students are taught and includes question types which are unfamiliar to most test takers and give a significant advantage to students who have had prior exposure to the test, even with recent changes to its components. This speaks to the validity of the test, or whether it is actually measuring what it was designed to measure. New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza addressed this issue when he testified before the NYS Assembly Committee on Education last year. In his testimony, Chancellor Carranza explained that “a test is valid when it measures what it was designed to measure and it’s reliable when it gives you an accurate measurement over time…[a]s students go through their school day and they’re learning the state standards which the legislature has said this is what you need to know to be able to get a diploma from the State of New York, this test does not measure that. It does not measure that mastery. It’s a tricky test designed to rank order students. So in terms of reliability and validity for ranking students, it is. But the question is it the best methodology for measuring talent, for identifying talent, for identifying the grit, the tenacity, the dedication, the desire of students to be able to go a specialized public school in New York City. It is not valid, it is not reliable when it is used in that way.”

Although it would be logical to expect that the students who perform the best on the SHSAT to also be the students who perform the best on state tests, research indicates that is not necessarily the case. In 2015, Sean Corcoran, a researcher at NYU, examined data from 2005 to 2013 and determined that Black, Latinx and female students who score well on state tests are admitted to specialized high schools at a lower rate than White, Asian and male students. While the reasons for these differences are not fully understood, they were enough for Corcoran to conclude that the SHSAT acts as a BARRIER to admission for certain groups. This finding, standing alone, raises serious questions about the continued utilization of the SHSAT in the high school admissions process.

To the extent a special program like Discovery must be used, we see an opportunity to strengthen this alternate path. We have proposed combining the Discovery Program with the DOE’s DREAM middle school enrichment program as part of a larger, coordinated effort to identify academically talented students who are educationally disadvantaged as early as possible in their academic careers, and then provide them with accelerated instruction and other appropriate support, academic as well as social, both before and after their enrollment in high school. This would allow the City to move beyond the SHSAT as the sole way to identify talent, and target academically talented students from communities underrepresented at the City’s specialized high schools with a longer period of enrichment and support than the summer session currently offered through the Discovery Program. This would help compensate for our uneven educational system, and would assist admitted students with addressing the challenges they may face once they start high school.