NYC Placement Test Changes Meant to Level Playing Field

New York City is considering revising the placement test used for its elite high schools, according to Aaron Short of the New York Post.  The overhaul comes after accusations that the results are tilted in favor of the students who can afford private test preps.

The changes to the test being considered are making it easier for immigrants who are non-fluent in English and injecting subjectivity by requiring an essay exam.  This week it was revealed that the administration was seeking bids for a new version of the test which decides who will be enrolled in the eight specialized and top-performing schools.

Once the test is overhauled, students will be given the exam beginning in the fall of 2016 — but not before it is examined carefully to ensure that there is no bias toward African-Americans, Latinos, and other minorities.  The test also will be based on skills from the new Common Core standards, eliminating the advantage for students who take private prep classes to learn information not covered in class.

“It’s a clear effort on the part of the Department of Education to respond to the criticisms and make sure that the test is the best possible and the most fair to everybody,” said Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation President Larry Cary.

Still, there are critics.  Some say the essay requirement is one of the easier things to improve through outside prep or tutoring.  Others say using the Common Core penalizes students whose schools fall short on teaching them. Last year, the October test had 27,817 students registered, and of those 46% were black or Hispanic.  Still, only 5% of the 5,096 students accepted were black and 7% were Latino.

In an article in the New York Daily News written by Erin Durkin, Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his position.  His backers say that this is a needed change since schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech are overwhelmingly Asian and white.

“It’s just this simple. This is a society that’s supposed to be based on fairness. Our specialized schools don’t reflect the kind of fairness that any New Yorker would recognize by any common sense measure,” de Blasio said.

Now, a group called the Coalition of the Specialized High School Alumni Organizations has announced they will oppose any changes to the test. They believe that changing the test will “water down” the school’s demanding curriculum.

Instead, the Department of Education should increase efforts to prepare black and Latino kids for the test, the group said. “Reliance on a test for admissions doesn’t allow for favoritism, bias, or politics to determine entry,” its statement said.

The mayor disagreed.  But state law mandates that this test be used as the sole admissions tool for three of the schools, so to change the process, legislation would be needed.  As far as the five other schools go, the city controls admissions, but the decision to change the test has not yet been made.  De Blasio says that officials have to devise a new test before the city can decide whether or not to use it.

The change was defeated in the last legislative session, but will come up again in January, according to the Queens Chronicle. There are changes other than the addition of the essay and the Common Core base. The admissions process will examine grade point averages, attendance records, and state test scores.  Those who are behind the change have the United Federation of Teachers on their side.  A statement on its website says:

 “The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the single, high stakes determination for entry for eight of the nine New York City specialized high schools has not been validated by researchers and has resulted in diminished access for high achieving black and Latino students.”

The Discovery Program was a part of a plan to create enrichment programs to help prepare middle schools students for specialty school’s admission tests.  The program would allow the schools to admit disadvantaged students who do not make the cutoff score on the test, says Kate Taylor of The New York Times.

Through the Discovery Program, Stuyvesant, who historically admits students based on the highest cutoff score on the test, could admit a limited number of disadvantaged students who scored high enough for Bronx Science, with the second-highest cutoff score.  Then, Bronx Science could take students who made the cut-off for Brooklyn Tech.  The only one of the three big schools that still participate in the Discovery Program is Brooklyn Tech.