Ongoing Delay of the SHSAT Elicits Concern

The DOE’s ongoing delay of registration for the SHSAT and a lack of information regarding this year’s high school admissions cycle has elicited varying responses from middle schoolers, parents, prep organizations, and specialized high school administrators.

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By Ying Chen

Every year, nearly 28,000 eighth grade students take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) in late October to determine their admission into eight of New York City (NYC)’s specialized high schools. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this year’s SHSAT administration has been postponed alongside the rest of the 2020-2021 high school admissions cycle, with the original registration period in October having been delayed indefinitely. Though the Department of Education (DOE)’s website reports that students “will have additional time to register” for this year’s SHSAT, NYC Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza has yet to announce a new registration deadline and testing date.

Mayor Bill de Blasio stated last month that because of the pandemic, an in-person administration of the SHSAT is “not a scenario we are likely to do,” which has raised speculation about the test being administered online. Concerns from middle school families have also increased due to de Blasio’s announcement on November 18 that all public middle and high schools will be closed for at least the remainder of 2020 because of rising COVID-19 positivity rates in the city.

In response to these worries, the DOE has expressed its commitment to giving students the opportunity and time to explore admissions options in the future despite current circumstances. “COVID-19 has had a profound impact across every aspect of our school system, and as a result, we have had to update our pre-pandemic admissions timeline, including the SHSAT administration. We understand that students, families, and schools are eager for more information, and we will soon share additional details around the plan for the SHSAT administration, as well as other admissions components,” NYC DOE Deputy Press Secretary Katie O’Hanlon said in an e-mail statement. “We are committed to providing ample time for families to explore schools and apply once the processes launch. We are still ​planning to administer the SHSAT; it will be later than the previously announced date.”

However, the constant reopening and closing of public schools may be a sign that the DOE needs to prioritize other aspects of online learning before planning the SHSAT. “My guess would be that the DOE has not addressed [the SHSAT] because they didn't want to deal with the political backlash that might occur. Like, ‘It’s a middle of a pandemic, and you’re thinking about the SHSAT? Where are your priorities?’ I feel that would be the response from some people,” Shanjeed Ali (’17) said.

Administrators at Stuyvesant have reiterated the lack of explicit instruction from the DOE regarding the SHSAT. “I’ve been getting the same updates everyone else has gotten and have been raising the same questions: what exam […] should [we] expect in terms of the administration, if at all?” Principal Seung Yu said. “There’s some speculation that it might be administered via computer. Again, these are speculations, and no one knows for sure, and I think that’s been the biggest concern, that there’s not been much status on what's going to happen.”

Many parents, students, and pro-SHSAT groups have expressed concern over the possibility of an online exam. “If the test is virtual, it [wouldn’t be] very hard for people to cheat, whether it's a calculator or using some other method,” Zarchary Meryn, an eighth-grader at East Side Middle School, said in an e-mail interview. “I think that the test's integrity would suffer, and it would cause a lot of frustration in my community.”

Beacon High School senior Toby Paperno—who is part of Teens Take Charge, an organization dedicated to equity in NYC public schools—said that an online SHSAT would heighten pre-existing inequalities favoring students who have had paid preparation for the exam. “So many students don't have access to computers or to high speed Internet, or have a phone where they can do it, and I think it's just like if the inequalities were like this before, they would skyrocket if you were administering it online,” he said. “Even though [an online SHSAT] might be the safest thing to do, it would also be the most discriminatory to do.”

With the testing date and format still undetermined for the SHSAT, some families have begun to turn to other admissions processes. “Personally, my family was considering private schools before the pushbacks started, but as time went on, they became more convinced that it would be better for us since the SHSAT is nowhere in sight, and every date we get is constantly being pushed back,” Meryn said. “About half of my friends feel the same way and have already [begun to look] into other schools.”

The Test for Admission into Catholic High Schools (TACHS)—the admissions test used for potential candidates of Catholic High Schools around New York City—was administered as planned in November, but as an “online, remote, at-home test” rather than an in-person test, according to their website. The test required the use of an anti-cheating monitoring program called Proctorio. “For me personally, I was already planning to apply to both Catholic Schools and the specialized schools so the plans have not changed,” Judy Shehata, an eighth grader at Myra S. Barnes Intermediate School 24, said in an e-mail interview. “For others, however, I believe more students than in usual years took their chances in applying to a Catholic School and taking the TACHS since there is so much uncertainty around the SHSAT and specialized schools.”

Relying on private or charter school admissions is not an option for all families though. “I’m not going to a private school because it is very expensive, and it’s not the right fit for me, but a lot of my friends are trying to go to private schools because they have just kind of given up on the whole SHSAT route,” Tessa Kolovarsky, another eighth grader at East Side Middle School, said.

Some students continuing to study for the SHSAT, however, have faced a significant drop in morale. Cindy Zou, an eighth grader at Marie Curie Middle School, has been preparing for the exam by attending the DREAM program, a free initiative that prepares seventh-grade public school students for the SHSAT. “The pandemic has drastically reduced my time studying for the SHSAT. It also caused me to lose a lot of motivation,” she said in an e-mail interview. “The DREAM program went fully remote and lost many sessions. Personally, I am unsuited for online school, so studying at home made it really difficult for me to concentrate and even begin [to do] work.”

Other students have continued to study diligently. “My friend Lesly has been taking SHSAT prep all summer, and she has been doing a lot of work, which has been stressing her out,” Chappell said.

Students are not the only ones who have been forced to adjust—test prep centers across the city have also had to, which has led to mixed results. “Learning is something that’s very personalized and supposed to be meaningful. And face-to-face experience is always preferred, especially for the ability to learn from your peers,” an anonymous specialized high school alumnus who currently runs a tutoring company said. “However, the online space does offer a lot more quality control and standardization.”

Despite setbacks, test prep centers are still urging their students to continue prepping for the exam. “We're predicting that the exam is going to take place at least three months from now, so we're [estimating] two months to mobilize and prepare. We’re running refresher courses right now [and] free extra help every Friday to keep momentum. We obviously don’t want the kids to stop studying,” Kweller Prep founder Frances Kweller said.

Similarly, Stuyvesant’s administration has encouraged test-taking students to continue with preparation for the SHSAT, regardless of how the test is administered. “Families who have been preparing should continue to do what they've been doing,” Yu said. “I’m certain the DOE will provide information for that soon or in the near future.”