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Whelan, Oliver, Keep the SHSAT; It’s Fair and Necessary

WHELAN, OLIVER

Oliver Whelan
Age: 13, Grade: 8

School Name: Salk School of Science, New York, NY
Educator: Jake Wizner

Category: Critical Essay

Keep the SHSAT; It’s Fair and Necessary

     Imagine a child from a poor, immigrant family with parents who do not speak English. Now, imagine if there was one test that could determine the course of that child’s future and end his family’s cycle of poverty. That’s what many New York City families think about the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), an annual entrance exam into eight of the city’s most rigorous and elite high schools. Even though many think the test is unfair–and even racist–this exam proves an important point: it rewards those who work hard and is a good example that meritocracy pays off.
     The SHSAT has been in place since 1972 1. and its sole purpose since then has been to identify academically strong students who can thrive in rigorous schools. It never asked about race, income, or any other demographic information. All that is required is scoring high enough to meet the minimum cut-off. Currently, the test contains 114 unbiased, fair, and objective questions divided equally between math and English Language Arts. The test is extremely difficult; only 5,000 out of 30,000 eighth-graders who take it every year are offered seats at the prestigious schools. But those who study hard for the test months– and even years–in advance eventually learn to master the questions and end up having a very good chance of getting an offer letter in March.  
    For many, this test is their only shot at having a better, more successful life than their parents. Getting that letter is a dream come true for many sons and daughters of immigrants from China, India, Bangladesh, Russia, and other countries, many of whom have parents who came to this country to find a better life. Over 800 students who responded to a survey said they took the SHSAT “for the opportunity for a better future,” according to a New York Times article. 2. Schools like Stuyvesant, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech offer many advanced placement courses, an intellectual environment, and access to an influential network of teachers and alumni. They also feed into many of the top universities and Ivy League schools. Not only do the eight high schools have the highest attendance rates of all New York City public high schools, but they also have some of the highest SAT scores (1429 combined in verbal and math), and a 99 percent college readiness rate, according to a report by the Manhattan Institute, a think tank that focuses on education. Nearly all graduates go on to college, work, or the military. In short, the SHSAT guarantees all students who attend specialized schools, a great education. Even New York Times columnist Bret Stephens recently Tweeted that “Admission to Stuyvesant has been a ticket out of poverty for hundreds of thousands of brilliant, non-wealthy New York kids.” 3. 
    Opponents of the test argue that the test leads to a racially skewed learning environment for students that does not reflect the diversity of the New York City. It’s true. About 67 percent of the city’s high school students are black and Latino, yet only but only 5 percent of those test-takers were offered a seat. Those numbers have been steadily declining over the years. Meanwhile, Asian and white kids make up the majority of test-takers and those who get in. For example, Stuyvesant, with the highest cut-off score, is made up of 74 percent Asians students, and only seven out of 895 offers went to black kids last year. 4. But getting rid of the SHSAT is not the answer. The answer is overhauling a seriously flawed educational system. Teachers are underpaid and overworked. Bad teachers end up in the worst schools, which are typically in low-income areas. The New York City Department of Education (DOE) should incentivize talented teachers to work in these neighborhoods so that all children have a solid education starting in preschool and leading up to elementary, middle and high school. If a student lacks a solid school foundation, then that student will not succeed at one of the rigorous and demanding specialized high schools. 
     The argument of racism is flawed because Asians who score high on the SHSAT are also minorities, but the only difference is they are mostly the children of low-income, first-generation immigrants. This minority group prioritizes education and spends most of its time and limited income on sending their children to test prep courses from an early age. These classes are expensive yet some Asian families devote as much as half of their monthly salaries to make sure their kids are prepared for the test. The DOE should offer free test prep courses to black and Latino students and start offering them earlier, perhaps as early as sixth-grade to give these kids more time to learn the challenging material. Also, there should be an outreach program where information about the SHSAT is publicized in libraries, hospitals, health clinics, supermarkets, homeless shelters, and other places. 
     This would be more effective than Mayor de Blasio’s  Discovery Program, which sets aside seats in specialized schools for low-income minorities who scored just below the cut-off score on the SHSAT. While the intention of Discovery was to admit more black and Latino students, it also ended up benefiting Asian students because they have the highest poverty rate of all racial and ethnic groups in all specialized high schools, according to Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization that covers schools5. In fact, 63 percent of Asian students at specialized high schools come from low-income families.
     Beyond the issues of race and diversity, another important consideration is that the SHSAT actually identifies students who will succeed in specialized high schools and in life. There is a strong relationship between a student’s SHSAT scores and their performance in school, according to a 2015 study by Chalkbeat.org that showed students who scored well on the SHSAT consistently did well in the classroom. 6.  Many opponents argue that specialized high schools admit students who only perform well on tests, however, this study shows that students who score well on the SHSAT usually “have positive attitudes towards learning,” and as a result achieve academic success. If the test was eliminated, there would be no way to gauge who could handle the intense workload. As a result, more students would likely fail and quickly lose their self-esteem and possibly drop out of high school. Also, all the specialized high schools would no longer rank among the most exclusive top tier schools if they admitted students who were not academically qualified. 
     The SHSAT should not be blamed for the unfair minority representation in specialized high schools. The blame should be on the DOE for not giving all students an equal education. The real problem is that schools in poor neighborhoods should receive better funding and have better teachers, so kids are more likely to succeed.  With good elementary and middle school education, students are expected to know the material on the SHSAT. People shouldn’t blame the SHSAT for low diversity rates in specialized schools, but start blaming the real root of the problem: finding a way to fix bad schools.   

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