The SHSAT: Is There Anything Wrong With It?

Some claim that the SHSAT is biased, but the real bias lies in the unequal education students receive.

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The time-honored controversy of the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) has erupted again during these past few weeks. Anti-SHSAT and pro-SHSAT protesters clashed in the streets in a spectacle more befitting the collapse of some Eastern European dictatorship than a fairly technical disagreement over a measure of academic performance. However, a significant number of people seem to feel that the test is not only an inadequate justification for entrance to New York City’s most selective public high schools but also actively biased and racist. Of course, it’s evident that insufficient numbers of African American and Latino students gain admission to places like Stuyvesant—only seven Black students were admitted this past year. Nonetheless, angry critics of the SHSAT may have drawn the wrong conclusions.

Let’s consider what the SHSAT would be replaced with. It wouldn’t be some magically fair system that allows everyone to succeed in spite of the social injustices they may have faced. Without the test as a gatekeeper, what you have is “holistic” admissions (as in college admissions). This means a consideration that’s based on a mix of grades, extracurriculars, essays, and other subjective factors by which officials determine who gets in and who doesn’t. The simple fact is that those people are often biased. The entire system of “holistic” admissions, it turns out, was created by elite universities: by just relying on the SAT, too many Jewish and, later on, Asian people, were being admitted (the writer Malcolm Gladwell documents this effect in his essay “Getting In”). Considering general factors of “personality” and “culture” allowed institutions to restore the balance, which in practice meant letting more white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in. Harvard continues to fight a lawsuit that states that their practices discriminate against Asians. According to none other than Harvard’s own newspaper, The Crimson, Asians who were admitted between 1995 and 2013 had SAT scores that were 22 points higher on average than that of white students. This translates to white students needing 22-point lower scores on the SAT to get into Harvard, a seemingly clear-cut case of disadvantage.

But what about the other claims that standardized tests like the SAT and SHSAT don’t really measure aptitude for academic achievement? Some people point out that the way that students achieve high scores is by preparing a lot for the test. In particular, there is a culture of test prep among Asians, though they are not the only ones who take it. But does this mean that the test isn’t a good measurement? This logic clearly doesn’t stand up. A basketball contest is still seen as a pretty good measurement of basketball skill, even though teams spend a lot of time practicing for it. If you think about it, the idea that practicing for anything should be disqualifying is pretty strange, which says a lot about people’s attitudes. It would be one thing if the evidence showed the test had no relationship to academic performance, but the actuality is different: a Department of Education study from 2013 showed “a strong positive relationship between doing well on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test and high school academic performance.”

In short, there is no evidence that the test itself is biased or that it is a poor indicator of academic performance. And there is plenty of reason to think that a subjective, un-standardized admissions system would be worse. However, the extremely low admissions rate of Black and Latino students certainly needs to be addressed. The actual problem is rooted in the poor education system of the United States, which systematically denies opportunities to non-white and low-income students. By scapegoating the SHSAT, the city government is failing to take responsibility for the ineffective system that is actually causing the disparity in academic outcomes. As some journalists have pointed out, the inequalities begin early on in elementary and middle school: school districts in, say, Brownsville, lack the kind of “gifted and talented” programs that schools in Park Slope would take for granted. A two-tiered sorting happens from the get-go, whereby students from wealthier (and whiter) areas are encouraged to pursue advanced topics while those in poorer (and less white) areas are not.

All the energy spent protesting the SHSAT would be better used on addressing the fundamental educational disparities that cause the lack of diversity at top NYC high schools. For starters, there should be a true mandate of the equality of educational facilities and training between lower-income, mainly minority schools and higher-income, predominately white schools, including gifted and talented programs. If this plan sounds overly radical, it shouldn’t: similar laws have been in place for decades under Title IX, which requires equal facilities for boys and girls (for instance, on sports teams). Only racism and classism seem to prevent similar applications of these kinds of laws. While NYC’s Fair Student Funding formula, in theory, is designed to correct the problem, in practice, the city government refuses to implement it. As Chalkbeat New York reported, “When it was first adopted, city officials wanted to avoid taking money from wealthy schools, so instead they promised to raise poorer schools’ budgets. However, around the same time, the Great Recession hit, causing New York State to roll back planned increases in school aid to districts.”

Since the “Fair Funding” equation exists to resolve the problem of some schools receiving more money than others, for New York officials to say that they don’t want to take money away from wealthier schools is equivalent to saying that the policy is simply not going to be enforced. Instead, they substitute empty promises of funding magically coming from elsewhere at a time when budgets are tighter than ever. The reality is that the education budget isn’t of infinite size: if you want to expand the resources available for poorer schools, you have to take it from somewhere, and that place is wealthier schools. If we don’t want to do that, we have to ask ourselves how committed to equal opportunities we really are.

Addressing the root causes of inequality requires owning up to uncomfortable truths about our education system and actually fixing the problem. Blaming the SHSAT sounds easier but only opens the door to other kinds of discrimination while doing nothing to actually improve educational outcomes. Next time people take to the streets for education, they should think carefully about what sign to hold.