Every spring, the NYC Department of Education releases the results of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), a 3-hour long, 114 question test of reading comprehension and math questions that is the sole criteria for admission into NYC’s Specialized High Schools (SHS). The SHS represents some of NYC and the nation’s top high schools. Each year, the headlines shout, “Only, some single digit number, of students are accepted into Stuyvesant this year.” Stuyvesant High School has the highest cutoff score and is considered the most competitive of the 8 SHS. After the scores are released, there are some words of outrage by different concerned individuals and organizations and then we wait for next year for the cycle to repeat. No significant changes are ever made.
Let’s look at this year’s results. Only 11 Back students received offers to Stuyvesant and 7 have accepted those offers. Let us look at the larger but equally prestigious Brooklyn Technical HS. This year 56 Black students received offers out of the 1,498 offers that were made, a paltry 3.74%.
Some would say that maybe Black students are not taking the test. Out of the 27,667 students that took the test, 5,714 students were Black, representing 20.65% of all test takers. I would consider that a pretty significant number. Out of these 5,714 students, only 131 received offers, representing 2.29%. My heart goes out to the 5,583 students who did not receive offers and tried their best.
I would assert that the SHSAT is the most challenging High School entrance exam our students encounter. Its complex reading passages and challenging math questions are based on concepts that students learn in school but most have not experienced the intricate level of questions being asked on the exam. The SHSAT can reduce high performing students who are level 4’s on state tests to shells of themselves, guessing their way through the test, completely outmatched by a test like nothing they have seen before.
Despite these challenges, in the 80’s and 90’s a school like Brooklyn Tech would have anywhere from 30 % to 45% Black students attending the school. Tech was considered the Howard U of SHS. Since the early 2000’s there has been a steep decrease in the number of Black students attending the SHS.
Why have the numbers fallen so low? The majority of the population of the SHS has historically come from the gifted and talented (G and T), classes, programs or schools of NYC. Ask any alum from a SHS that attended in the 80’s and they will proudly tell you about their middle school and how it prepared them for the test without prepping, just based on the depth and quality of their curriculum. G and T programs are frowned upon today and most significantly, are no longer housed in most schools, as it used to be. The few G and T programs that exist do not exist in communities of color. The few historically G and T schools that did exist in Black communities, such as Philippa Schuyler Middle School, no longer functions as G and T schools. The acceleration that occurred in G and T schools allowed students to move past the limits of their grade level curriculum and interact with higher order work. If students never see the challenging questions and concepts found on the SHSAT until they sit for the exam or just take the two practice tests found in the city’s SHS brochure, how are they expected to perform well? There is absolutely nothing wrong with our Black students, we just have not, will not, for whatever reason, prepare them or give them the tools needed to navigate the complexities of this test.
What can we do, if we care to do anything? Each stakeholder in our children’s educational journey can play a role in addressing this situation. In the case of the city, a few years ago two promising state senators offered a proposal of a practice SHSAT that would be given to incoming 6th graders, similar to the way the PSAT is given to 10th and 11th grade students before they have to take the SAT. Giving all students or interested students this pre SHSAT would be multi-purposeful. It would 1) allow students to see where they fared in comparison to students across the city, 2) provide a city wide benchmark that could give parents a sense of where their child really stood in relation to this challenge and 3) create a roadmap to determine the work that would be required for success on the actual test.
For schools, creating strong co-horts of students from 6th grade through 8th grade that could be enriched and accelerated would be an investment that would bear fruit in two years leading to higher state test results and even Regents classes while still in middle school. This has been done before, but not using a concerted and coordinated approach. Imagine if each school in District 13 identified 15 students per grade for its SHSAT academic enrichment program. In two years, District 13 would have a pipeline cohort of about 100 students each year who would be ready to effectively compete for seats at a SHS as well as potentially take the Algebra and or English Regents in 8th grade. Now imagine if District 16 was doing the same thing. For parents, if your school doesn’t provide a program, working with an academic enrichment company for two years may just be the investment that leads to great outcomes for your child’s future.
When I started CAS Prep 10 years ago the number of Black students offered admission to Brooklyn Tech was slightly above 100. Despite our success in getting students through the SHSAT test prep process, the numbers of Black students offered seats has declined each year. This year’s 56 offers worry me, it represents a drop of 50 students in 10 years. If we don’t wake up and put some legitimate plans into actions, in ten years the headlines may read.” This year Brooklyn Technical High School admits 1500 students and only 7 are Black!”
Samuel Adewumi is an alumnus of Brooklyn Technical High School. He came back to his alma mater to teach math and engineering and was the head football coach for several years. He created CAS Prep to give students of color an enrichment and prep program that was 1) located in their community, 2) spoke to their needs and 3) believed in their genius and potential. He can be reached through casprep.org or email@example.com