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State Legislature Won't Address Specialized Schools Admission Test This Year

A protest at City Hall Park on June 5th to keep the SHSAT
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A protest at City Hall Park on June 5th to keep the SHSAT Andres O'Hara

The fierce debate around eliminating the specialized high school admissions test will continue into 2019. State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie declared yesterday that there would not be an opportunity for the legislature to pass a bill during this session, which is scheduled to end June 20th.

Heastie made the decision after meeting with the Asian Pacific task force, which represents constituents who oppose the bill. Asian-Americans make up 62 percent of students at these specialized high schools, while black and Latino students make up less than 10 percent. The mayor's plan to eliminate the SHSAT and admit top students from all middle schools is intended to address this racial inequality.

The bill's chances of passing the legislature this session were always a long shot. De Blasio has long claimed that the city "can’t redesign the enrollment process at specialized schools because they are governed by a 1971 state law," Chalkbeat reports, but the current law addresses only three of the eight schools. Legal experts, and even the mayor's own staff, have argued he could change admissions requirements at five of the schools, without a new state law.

Rachel Kleinman, Senior Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told Gothamist that the city "can act right now to change admissions at five of eight schools. It feels like a bit of a punt to wait for the state when there's action they can take right now." The mayor has said repeatedly he wants to wait for a state law before proceeding.

But there will be some changes to the admissions process next year. Twenty percent of seats will be set aside for low-income students who just barely miss the SHSAT cutoff, through a summer program known as Discovery. This program will also expand to target high-poverty schools (instead of just poor students), which would have more of an impact for black and Latino students.

As the validity of the SHSAT is being questioned, the former chief academic officer at the Department of Education, Shael Polakow-Suransky, who oversaw the Department of Education’s SHSAT contract, tweeted "it's not a particularly strong or predictive test."

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Polakow-Suransky said the reason for the test's structure as a multiple choice test is because it was cheaper to produce than a more complex test. "Tests are expensive and the quality of the instrument depends on how much you’re going to spend on it. And so this is a really basic one, like as far as tests go, it’s about as simple an instrument as you can create." He was critical of the idea that this test was predictive of intelligence or classroom performance.

"Any high-performing university, any high-performing private school, and most of the other high-performing screen schools in the city all look at a range of measures in order to find the best talent and we don’t for the specialized schools. We just look at this very narrow set of English and math skills that you can measure with multiple choice questions.

"And it leads to an inequitable outcome because we’re relying on the students who are participating in this test to kind of focus on how do they do well on this set of questions that this test is measuring, which is not really the right set of things that we should be looking for to find the best talent. And then people spend lots of money and lots of time doing test prep to get good at taking this test which doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re great writers or great thinkers or great leaders."

Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that integration of these high schools is a "legitimate issue" that should be revisited next year "as part of the mayoral control debate.” His primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, vowed to sign a bill doing away with SHSAT if elected governor, telling Chalkbeat, “We need them to be more racially diverse when it comes to black and Latino students."

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