What NYC Teens Actually Think About the SHSAT

A plan to discard standardized testing for specialized high school admissions bothered me. So I asked my peers what they thought about the issue.

by Merry Li

In June 2018, I began to hear news about then-Mayor Bill de Blasio wanting to do away with the Standardized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the exam New York City students take to get into one of eight specialized high schools. These specialized schools are seen as huge stepping stones into elite colleges. 

Instead, the mayor’s plan recommended admitting the top 7% of students in each middle school. He said specialized high schools did not reflect the diversity of the city and that he believed the test was not an accurate measure of a student’s intelligence. He also argued for setting aside 20% of seats for students enrolled in the Discovery program, which offers a second chance of gaining admittance to specialized schools to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the cutoff score. 

I tried to understand the argument, but as an Asian American, I felt like his plan was directly targeting us. Asians currently make up the majority of students in specialized high schools, and no one was asking for our input. I believed the city was treating the test as a game but pausing it when a majority of players performed better than the others and then arguing that the game wasn’t fair to begin with.  

My peers and I spent years struggling to study for the SHSAT, spending hours at after-hour cram schools. We faced pressure from our parents to uplift our immigrant families by hopefully getting into one of the specialized schools and eventually a good college.

Now it felt like we were being punished even though we did exactly what was asked of us. It appeared that we were being pushed out of good schools precisely because too many of us worked hard and achieved top scores. If the test was changed and Asians were now among the least accepted, would that not be a new issue? 

I Survey My Peers 

I wanted to learn more about this issue so I recently spoke with Vivian Louie, the Director of the Asian American Studies Center and Program at Hunter College. Over the years, I never spoke about my concerns about discarding the SHSAT with classmates, because I thought it might cause heated discussions since I attend a specialized high school.  

Professor Louie encouraged me to have the difficult conversations, though, and said they might help me better understand others’ perspectives about the SHSAT.  

At the same time, I read a story on Youth Communication’s website about the Discovery program, written by Richard Zhao, an Asian student. He benefited from Discovery and got into the specialized high school of his choice. He also disagrees with the SHSAT being the sole admission requirement: “I don’t think my eligibility for getting into any school should be based on one test,” Richard wrote.  

To gain more perspectives, I created an anonymous survey and asked administrators at my school to send it to 11th grade students. I also asked some friends at other schools to pass along the survey to their classmates. There were 10 questions ranging from  “On a scale of 1-10 how fair do you think the SHSAT is?” to “Did you have access to test prep when preparing for SHSAT?” 

A Wide Variety of Results 

I received 34 responses. Comments included: “I find it bogus that a singular test determines if ur good enough for the top schools,” to “Whilst the test does promote this idea of equal testing for all, people go into the test with different levels of preparedness as some go to specialized tutoring, which is paid for, whilst some don’t have the funds to do so.”  

On accepting the top 7%, students said things like: “grades at school don’t truly symbolize how well you know the material. The teacher can be biased, or any other reason besides knowledge can affect a school grade. A test is more uniform, and everyone has the same advantage to do well or bad on it.”  

In response to the same question, another student raised an important caveat about preparedness: “Depends because some specialized high schools are full of extremely tough workloads and pushing that onto a student who doesn’t meet their standards could possibly be detrimental to their own mental health.”  

Some echoed my concerns, saying: “isn’t that unfair to Asians, because the reason why this is a subject is because there [are] more Asians?” 

Maybe the adults will read this story and begin to listen.

One of my biggest takeaways was that almost 70% of respondents received test prep, but there was an acknowledged consensus that test prep is not accessible to everyone. Many students did not know about the city’s DREAM test prep program.  

One student discussed the intricacies of private test prep and how even those programs can be harmful. “[It’s] definitely not accessible. It’s very expensive and my parents paid a lot to put me into prep. …Also, prep places are very snobbish and they have this hierarchy. At one place we had rankings for our levels of understanding for both math and English and it did not feel well being ranked all the way in the bottom. You could tell there was more dedication put on students who were succeeding versus those who were not doing so well.” 

The most common rating for how fair everyone thought the test was 6 out of 10 (at 47.1%), with a score of 1 being not fair at all, and 10 being very fair. Overall, everyone who took this survey agreed that the test itself is not unfair; however, what’s especially flawed is how the test is executed, who has access to it, and how students are prepared for it.  

If I could do a follow-up survey, I would ask those who think accepting the top 7% is a good idea why they think so. And I would also send this survey to students in various other high schools. These results are from a specific group—current high school students who did well enough on the test to get into specialized or prestigious high schools. I would love to know what students from less resourced high schools think about this topic. 

I also want to do another survey for individuals that identify as Asian to see what they think. Do they have the same thoughts that I have?  

Will Adults Listen to Us? 

After having some time to reflect, I understand that there is not as much racial diversity as one would hope in specialized high schools. I feel like some changes should be made to the Discovery program and how they pick their candidates – what if your family falls just below the cutoff, but still objectively lives in poverty? How can that be fair?  

Now, I think more about the lack of equal opportunities. Is it because the city does not have enough funding? Is it because the city does not care? Mayor de Blasio’s proposal never went into effect, and it doesn’t feel like there’s been a real solution for creating more diversity. The new mayor, Eric Adams, has passed the buck, saying the state should determine the future of the SHSAT. 

Maybe me saying all this sounds naive – I am a 16-year-old high school student who isn’t privy to the inner workings of how politicians and education policymakers come up with decisions about funding or enrollment rules. But I also feel like many adults don’t listen to students’ opinions, don’t tell us why they think certain decisions benefit us, or simply don’t care. Maybe the adults will read this story and begin to listen. 

Discussion Questions

  1. How does reading stories from other young people, and listening to the experiences of her peers impact Merry’s perspective on the SHSAT?
  2. What questions would you want to ask your peers about the SHSAT? What questions would you want to ask politicians and education policymakers about the SHSAT?
  3. What is your perspective on the SHSAT? After reading Merry’s story has your perspective changed?
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