Friday, August 2, 2019

The WAVE: School Scope - Those SHSAT Tests, Part 1

School Scope:  Those SHSAT Tests, Part 1
By Norm Scott

When I was an 8th grade student in the 1957-58 school year at George Gershwin JHS, a jewel of a school recently opened on Linden Blvd in East NY section of Brooklyn, male students were offered an opportunity to take an after school class in prepping for the test for Brooklyn Tech, at the time the only specialized high school that went from 9th-12th grade. The others, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science began in the 10th grade and for those schools the test was taken in the 9th grade. As a new school Gershwin wanted to make its bones by being able to boast about how many students were accepted to the specialty schools.

When the test came I joined hundred if not thousands of others in the massive auditorium at Tech. I was nervous but felt I was ready and I attacked the test with vigor but also worked my way through the questions carefully. Time was called when I still hadn’t completed about a third of the test. I didn’t even have time to randomly fill in the blanks which would have given me a chance based on chance to get about a fourth of them correct. I was stunned at my failure. Apparently I didn’t learn the most important factor in test taking – watch the time.

Naturally I was not accepted and it was clear to me that the 8 students from my test prep class who made it were much smarter than me. I was friendly with some but noticed their absence in the 9th grade. I never saw them again.

When I entered my local high school, Thomas Jefferson, the next year, a few classmates who had taken the test in the 9th grade and been accepted to Stuyvesant were gone. We never saw them again either. I don’t remember if test prep was offered that year, but even if it was I was too demoralized to subject myself to that test taking experience again. I should mention that none of the missing students on both occasions were some of the incredibly smart girls in our class since girls were not allowed into the elite schools.

Now I should point out that at Jefferson I was among an elite group of about 200 students who were in “honor school”, a sub-school of college bound, and over the next three years we received what I considered a college-level education. But Jefferson also wanted to compete for elite status and considered gaining a NY State scholarship a measure of success. Thus we were pulled from gym cycles over the next year and a half to prep us for that test.

The point is that schools were offering test prep as far back as the 50s but it was free to all students who were deemed as having potential.

I raise this story as an intro to a series of columns on the controversy over the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). State law now mandates that this test be the only determining factor for admission to some elite schools, counter to the position taken by Mayor De Blasio and school chancellor Carranza who argue for a wider admission policy that would make the schools more diverse. The Asian community is up in arms since Asian students have had the greatest success and would lose seats if changes were made. This has created splits with the Black and Latinx who have been fundamentally shut out of these schools. In the 80s and 90s the numbers of students coming out of these communities was much higher. So the test was not a barrier then. What happened?

The NYT attempted to answer the question in this June 3 article: How New York’s Elite Public Schools Lost Their Black and Hispanic Students:

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History did a story on the LSAT test for law school titled: The Tortoise and the Hare that addresses the issue of why tests are timed and how that affects results. Are we testing knowledge and skills or speed? Do we want lawyers to be tortoises or hares?

I went from a tortoise when I took the Tech test in 1958 to a hare when I received a NY State scholarship in 1962. But was I any smarter other than having figured out how to use limited time on tests to my advantage?

Norm, when he has the time, still blogs at

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