The SHSAT Through the Decade: A Spec Ops Commentary

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Issue 17, Volume 110

By The Opinions Department 


DREAM, an extracurricular program of rigorous coursework designed to assist eligible NYC students in preparing for the SHSAT, downsizes due to budget constraints. The preparatory program shrinks by half in the months that follow, forcing students to begin the program in the spring of seventh grade rather than the summer of sixth grade.


A coalition of educational and civil rights groups—with the NAACP at the forefront—file a federal civil rights complaint with the United States Department of Education, claiming that the specialized high schools admissions test has a discriminatory impact on Black and Latino students, violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and should therefore no longer be used as the sole admissions criterion.


Bills that would grant NYC's Board of Education control over the specialized high schools admissions process are introduced. The new admissions criteria would include "multiple measures of student merit," such as grade point average and other factors that the board would deem appropriate. These bills do not make it past the Education Committees in the State Senate or Assembly in order to receive general body votes.


A bill is re-introduced to expand the admissions policy and factor in other measures of a student’s merit, such as grade point average, attendance, SHSAT, and state-wide standardized testing scores. The bill is not passed, but is supported by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and the United Federation of Teachers.

A newly-formed Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations released a statement in support of maintaining the test-based admission policy, asserting that the SHSAT is the only objective means of gaining entry into the city's specialized high schools. They call on the city to better promote the exam in underrepresented communities, to expand the scope and quality of SHSAT preparation options, and to reinvest in the Discovery Program. In response, Mayor de Blasio emphasizes his support of broadening admissions criteria beyond one exam.


Changes to the SHSAT are discussed at a City Council hearing—primarily de Blasio’s idea of having a multiple-criteria admissions system—but no consensus is made. Many agree that the SHSAT itself is unbiased, but is affected by external factors such as advanced courses in select schools and availability of outreach programs. Some also push to improve the school system itself, as well as fix issues on how students receive information about high school admissions and test prep. Generally, the SHSAT still has a significant amount of support.


In the summer of 2016, DREAM launched a new intensive for high-achieving eighth-grade students who would benefit from additional preparation for the SHSAT. It targets 500 more students who may perform well on the SHSAT, expands professional development opportunities for DREAM staff, and provides wraparound services for DREAM participants. The then-current DREAM model continues with a renewed focus on foundational skill-building and ensuring that curricula are fully aligned with the SHSAT. 77 of the 530 Black and Latinx students who received specialized high school offers this year participated in the DREAM program.


A modified Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) is implemented in the fall of 2017. Scrambled paragraphs and logical reasoning, which were both previously on the exam, are replaced with a multiple choice section on grammar. Reading comprehension and the math section are unchanged. The changes are made to align with what a student learns at school.


Mayor de Blasio proposes changes to specialized high school admission that would eliminate the SHSAT and admit students based on their class rank in middle school and standardized testing scores. He also announces that starting in the fall of 2019, the city would set aside 20 percent of seats in each specialized high school for low-income students who did not make the SHSAT cutoff; these students would attend the Discovery Program. Five percent of students in the 2018-2019 school year are admitted through this program. At Stuyvesant, these students undergo a six-week program that includes geometry, biology, English, and guidance in order to prepare for the Stuyvesant curriculum. The Discovery Program had previously been terminated at Stuyvesant by Principal Teitel in the 1990s.


The Discovery Program for the Stuyvesant class of 2023 greatly increased from 20 students in 2018 to nearly 100 participants in 2019. Eventually, students admitted through the program will make up 20 percent of the student body.


A lawsuit filed in 2018 by parents at the Christa McAuliffe School was closed in March of 2020. The initial lawsuit posed charges against the mayor and the chancellor for discriminating against Asian Americans and infringing on the 14th amendment through the Discovery Program. The plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction, which prevented the program from continuing until the case was settled, was denied in 2018. The plaintiffs attempted to appeal in 2019. And this year, the case was finally laid to rest.


The fact of this program’s existence in the first place calls into question the utility of the SHSAT, and indeed standardized tests in general. Such tests are meant to measure students’ proficiency in skill areas like math or reading comprehension. The problem, though, is that nobody thinks that test preparation is actually the best way to build that proficiency—if it were, it wouldn’t be test prep; it would just be normal education.

The existence of extensive test preparation materials, then, suggests that standardized tests measure something other than actual proficiency or ability; they thus constitute a direct challenge to the very notion of standardized testing. That challenge is almost a syllogism: if standardized testing measures proficiency, dedicated test prep shouldn’t help; if dedicated test prep helps, then standardized testing measures one’s ability to take a standardized test; but if the point of standardized testing is to measure proficiency, then it cannot be an end unto itself. Thus, standardized testing is pointless. That is why the College Board refused for years to release preparation materials for the SAT or even acknowledge that such materials could help; such an acknowledgement would directly undermine the justification for the SAT’s existence.

There is, of course, a middle ground, and truth be told, I hold to it: standardized tests can test real skills, in the absence of preparation; in other words, someone who is truly brilliant at math should get an 800, or near that, on the math section SAT without any preparation. And though standardized tests can be hacked, there is a limit to how much; in other words, someone truly incompetent at math will not do very well on the math section of the SAT no matter how much preparation they have had.

But the prevalence of test prep, including among standardized testing’s greatest proponents (that is, those who have benefitted from it), suggests that the middle ground is limited. If your justification for the disparities that the current system produces is “Black and Latino communities just have less emphasis on test preparation,” then you should rethink your position. Because the fact that that makes such a big difference, if indeed it does, suggests that standardized testing is failing at the job it is supposed to do in the first place.

—Jonathan Schneiderman, junior


The radical plans to progressively tackle the lack of racial diversity are extremely reliant on eradicating the exam. The specialized high schools were not always segregated. Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant were 67, 22, and 16 percent black and Latino, respectively, in 1989. In the early ‘90s, the proficient honors and accelerated courses in middle schools were eliminated, as segregating based on abilities fell out of favor. This gave fewer opportunities to all middle-school students, but parents who could afford other programs out-of-pocket were able to instill accelerated proficiencies in their child.

Middle schools where a majority of students advance to Specialized High Schools, such as Mark Twain or Christa McAuliffe, are not ordinary middle schools. Notably, they still utilize tracking. Though tracking has its disadvantages, creating majors with accelerated courses in middle schools, reassessed often, can target the issue with homogeneity in this system.

Jumping from one examination to a holistic admission does not solve the root of the problem: the severe cuts, like those under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to honors middle school programs are the major factor undermining the low-racial diversity seen, not the exam. Ignoring this is ignoring history.

A few trends must be addressed before targeting the issue. Despite Blacks and Latinos making up 65 percent of the city’s eighth-grade population in public schools, only nine percent were offered a seat in a specialized high school. In comparison, 27 percent of Asian eighth-graders took the exam. Not enough students are well-informed on the examination to diverge into a holistic approach. While mandating the exam would breach the gap of diversity, still, not enough students excel in it; despite the fact that blacks and Latinos collectively represent 40 percent of the test-takers in 2018, they received only 3.5 percent of offers. The city’s efforts to expand the scope of SHSAT prep had no effect on racial diversity in specialized high schools. This is not to suggest preparation is not essential to exceeding the exam, but rather that proficiencies established prior to the exam play an important part. Here, several accelerated programs for early school-children may mitigate racial disparity directly along with mandating the exam.

If these bills are adopted, the approach may favor those of privileged backgrounds over those with less affluent backgrounds, falling prey to arbitrariness, bias, and parental gamesmanship. Comparing college admits with 13-year-olds presumes similar opportunities to both groups that are just not present. Asian Americans have the highest rate of poverty in the city, along with their minority Black and Latino counterparts. Not only is the SHSAT objective in terms of economic status, but its elimination may deepen the divide of racial minorities and socioeconomic status in specialized high schools.

Nonetheless, one thing is clear: the lack of racial diversity is a tremendous failure on all parts, especially in comparison to the city’s demographics. Exposing adolescents to diverse races in high school is essential to combating individual racism and biases. These bills, however, propose a solution that is doubtful and disregards other determinants. Eradicating one exam may not solve the problem, and that we must consider.

—Rania Zaki, freshman


I learned what Stuyvesant was before I memorized my multiplication tables or even knew how to tie my shoes.

For me, attending was not an option but an obligation—over the years, my parents have endured tremendous personal costs to make sure of this. When I was five, they traded the shoddy schools down our block for a two-hour daily commute—the only way I could partake in the special gifted programs of wealthier districts. When I was 10, they forwent the house of their dreams in Forest Hills, settling instead for a shabby condominium in Bayside—the only way to be sure I’d attend a middle school that begat a great number of Stuyvesant attendees. And when I was 12, they sacrificed hours of sleep and picked up countless extra shifts at work—the only way we could afford prep class after prep class. I articulate these experiences because I do not take their weight lightly; had I not been the bearer of all these privileges, I would have—with no doubt—missed the Stuyvesant mark.

So it’s absurd that these councilmen were able to concede that the SHSAT “is affected by external factors such as advanced courses in select schools and availability of outreach programs”—all the factors that effectively ‘got me into’ Stuyvesant—but still clung to their stubborn conceptions that “that the SHSAT itself is unbiased.” Because when a test becomes a measure of not aptitude nor capacity to learn, but rather of circumstance and privilege, it is inherently biased.

It is biased toward those in the uppermost social echelon, those for whom private tutors and gifted programs and accelerated courses have always been a given. It is biased toward those in the racial majority; those who have never had to worry about second-rate school districts or a lack of information, those who were selected for success from their earliest of days. And it is biased toward people like me, who might not be wealthy or white, but who have, time and time again, gotten a leg up—albeit at their parents’ expense.

So the “significant amount of support” that the SHSAT had in 2015—and still, for the most part, has today—is nonsense. It disregards all the luck and externalities that make the SHSAT so biased, and invalidates the plight of racial and socioeconomic minorities across the city, for whom attending is seldom even considered an option.

—Kristin Cheng, junior


Mayor de Blasio’s proposed plan goes too far against the grain of the SHSAT. The test has defined Stuyvesant for many decades; take it away, and you take away the fundamental character of the school. The best argument in favor of the SHSAT is not that the SHSAT is objectively the best admissions metric. It is that other schools do and should have more holistic admissions criteria, but that Stuyvesant is not those schools. It’s not necessarily better or worse; it’s just different. Take Bard High School Early College, a school that in my view is Stuyvesant’s equal: it has a holistic admissions process. That’s good, and it should continue to exist. Stuyvesant should, too.

But not everything about Stuyvesant should exist, and part of the character of Stuyvesant as it exists today is racism, present both in the bare demographics of the student body and in the hearts and minds of some students themselves. The problem with Stuyvesant’s lack of Black and Hispanic students is twofold: one, it seriously worsens the experience of Black and Hispanic Stuyvesant students, and two, it means that a lot of Black and Hispanic students who should be at Stuyvesant and other SHSAT schools aren’t. Both are incredibly serious results of de facto segregation.

What’s more, the common retort to the Mayor that he should “fix the middle schools” misses the mark. Public officials have been combatting deeply embedded segregation for decades. They have tried, and are still trying, to attack the problem at its primary schooling roots. But it hasn’t been enough, and de Blasio’s instinct to go straight for the high school admissions process in addition to the middle and elementary school processes is a correct one.

His proposed plan, however, is not the way forward. That must lie on a path that keeps the SHSAT as the main factor in admissions—Stuyvesant is, after all, Stuyvesant, and not Bard or Townsend Harris—but makes adjustments to increase diversity. The Discovery Program expansion can provide us with a good outline of what the process should look like, but it used income as a proxy for ethnicity, for which it is a very limited proxy indeed. Perhaps the right path forward should combine income with geography or guarantee a seat to at least one student from each middle school without allocating all the seats in that fashion. But the solution must combine de Blasio’s zeal for pursuing egalitarianism through activist policy and keeping the SHSAT as the tool that shapes Stuyvesant.

—Jonathan Schneiderman, junior


The Discovery Program is an effective way to increase diversity in the specialized high schools without making changes to the SHSAT itself. The Discovery Program allows for students from high poverty schools to attend specialized high schools despite the fact that they did not meet the cutoff for admission. There are a few requirements a student must meet to qualify for this program. First, a student must be one or more of the following: from a low-income household, be in temporary housing, or be an English Language Learner who moved to NYC within the past four years. Aside from this, a student who qualifies for the program has to score within a certain range below the cutoff score and attend a school that is considered high-poverty (with an Economic Need Index of at least 60 percent). Once a student has met these qualifications, they can be admitted to only the schools that they listed on their SHSAT answer sheet.

This program, though beneficial, is not meant to be a permanent solution. Though it does increase the diversity in the specialized high schools, as the program intends to expand so that 20 percent of the student body is made up of Discovery Program students, it is simply a bandaid for the glaring inequality of opportunity in the NYC public school system. Allowing students who scored slightly below the cutoff to enter the school does not give future students of similar socioeconomic status the opportunity to meet or exceed the cutoff. It is important to remember that the inequality starts in the elementary schools, where the foundation for an education is built. Without continued investment in elementary and middle schools, the problem will continue, and the Discovery Program will continue to be a crutch.

—Maya Dunayer, sophomore

Parents want their children to succeed—that’s understandable. So when the Discovery Program was reintroduced, it invoked controversy. Though students in the Discovery Program did not earn admittance solely on their SHSAT score, it is no “quick way in.” Students demonstrate a commitment by taking the SHSAT and spending their summer in pursuit of acceptance. Despite this, the plaintiffs assert the program intentionally prejudges against Asian Americans.

By presenting past alterations of Asian demographics along with specific tweets, such as the Chancellor Richard Carranza tweet “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools,” the plaintiffs reasoned injury to Asian-americans. But the court ruled past injury is inadequate for a lawsuit; rather, demonstrating a risk of future injury would suffice. Evincing probable risk for Asian-Americans, however, is problematic because the program does not invalidate the Equal Protection Clausestudents’ eligibility is not based on race. All students who met the qualifications benefitincluding disadvantaged Asians. So the base of the plaintiff’s lawsuit is severely compromised.

And even if the Discovery Program alters the composition of the Asian demographic, it is justifiable. Laws usually affect races and ethnicities differently despite no discriminatory intent. What’s not justifiable is the harm imposed on all students at Stuyvesant and other specialized high schools because of the disheartening lack of diversity. Racially integrated schools provide students with a range of cognitive and social benefits, individually and collectively.

However, upholding a meritocracy is vital. Personal responsibility is the core root of America’s tradition from American individualism to the Judeo-Christian notion of personal accountability. The grave over-step in accountability in the program, and the root of the plaintiff’s objection, is the extension of seat allocations. The 20 percent reserved seats for the program should be maintained in the early stages, but as diversity rises, seat allocations should be severely minimized or eliminated. Stuyvesant, after all, is a place of meritocracy. Take away the diligent nature of persistent toil and Stuyvesant loses its meaning. Still, we keep in mind the benefits a well-rounded class poses for all students.

The mayor and chancellor need to recognize that the program will not mitigate every disparity without interventions prior to admittance. Perhaps the answer is in the reformation of our disastrous tax-funded school system, leaving thousands with insufficient education, and replacing it with efficient policies. The program should thus be viewed as an urgent response and not an answer to racial inequality. de Blasio must realize that “Give every student a chance” does not mean give every student a seat. The Discovery Program should be present to alleviate racial disparity, but only for a limited span of time.

—Rania Zaki, freshman