A Closer Look at the SHSAT: How it Helps and Hurts NYC Students

By Tali Lebowitsch

This year only seven out of eight hundred and ninety five seats were offered to black students to attend Stuyvesant High School, a specialized high school in New York City. Out of the other seven specialized high schools in the city, only ten percent of the student body consists of Black and Latinx students, coming from a system that is 70% of that particular demographic. These schools are some of the most elite public schools in the country, that were originally intended to provide equal opportunity for gifted students of any background to receive the quality education they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. These numbers are shocking and reflect a deeply rooted issue of segregation and inequity within the New York City public school system. 

In the 1930s, schools such as Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science began implementing a system of admissions-based testing that would be the sole factor in determining if a seat was offered to an applicant. This test, called the Standardized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), is a uniform test that any student wishing to attend must take. The schools then, based off of a bell curve of results, accept the top performing students in relation to the number of seats available. Theoretically, this test should enable equal opportunity for any student to attend such an elite school, as previous grades and performance have no weight in a student’s chance of being accepted. Serving simply as a measure of a student’s natural intelligence, the test has the potential of being a one-way ticket to the higher education, connections, and resources that would guarantee upward mobility to any student. 

So what does it mean that only seven black students were accepted into one of the most prestigious schools in the country, based off this exam? Does it mean that they are naturally less intelligent and capable of attending these schools? No, the harsh reality is that the system has failed drastically. Instead of creating a rigorous learning environment for a diverse student body, the schools that are highly funded and reputable often only service those who have the financial means to attend. The SHSAT has turned into a make-or-break deal, where immense pressure is placed on students as young as eight or nine to begin preparing for a test that they are told is the determining factor of their lives. Students, sometimes starting in elementary school, invest thousands of dollars and hours in studying and preparing for their seat.

On the other side of the spectrum, students from low-income backgrounds who attend under-funded and under-resourced middle schools, usually aren’t aware of the opportunity available to them. The majority of these students, which are black or brown, don’t know about the exam or have very little resources to help them have the same level of preparation that other students receive. Their middle schools may not provide information about the high school process, or their parents might not have the time or resources to assist their child through the very draining and time-consuming high school process.

What makes the issue more complex is that it’s not that the majority of seats at these specialized High Schools are occupied by white and wealthy students, in fact, the majority of the student body is composed of Asian American children. Asian Americans make up 74% of Stuyvesant’s current student body, although make up only 14% of the citywide population. Additionally, most of these Asian American students are first or second generation immigrants, and half qualify for reduced-price or free lunch, meaning many fall close to or below the poverty line. Intensely preparing for the SHSAT from a very young age has become a cultural custom of the Asian American communities of New York City and every year Asian American kids consistently score the highest and are offered the vast majority of the slots. Therefore, the opportunity of guaranteed upward socio-economic mobility that the SHSAT provides is one that has largely benefited and served Asian American children. 

However, it has become incredibly evident that the current system in place is too flawed to continue to operate the way it does. Many possibilities for how to tackle the inequity within specialized high schools have been raised, but none have satisfied the needs of every group. Last summer, mayor Bill De Blasio announced a plan that would ultimately get rid of the entrance exam in order to broaden the range of students accepted into specialized High Schools schools. “There are talented students all across the five boroughs, but for far too long our specialized high schools have failed to reflect the diversity of our city,” de Blasio said in a speech. This reform was met with immediate backlash from Asian American communities and no further progress on this plan has been enacted. Another reform was announced by de Blasio which would reserve 20% of seats at the seven schools for poor students who tested just below the cutoff score. Again, the Asian American community opposed the potential plan as they believed it deprived many Asian American students who performed higher and deserved their seat. The current debate about what next steps to take is incredibly divided, as it has been made clear that the current system disproportionately disadvantages Black and Latinx students.

Overall, there are many potential solutions to temporarily address the racial and economic disparity within specialized high schools. However, these plans are futile unless the larger issue of segregation and inequity within the New York City School public school system is addressed. The issue of the specialized high schools is the outcome of a system that is incredibly flawed in every way, extending far beyond the specialized high schools. Until the deep-rooted issue of inequality and injustice in education is dealt with, the achievement gap will widen and the SHSAT will continue to benefit few. I believe the issue must be handled by looking at the whole picture and fixing it collectively, but amending the SHSAT is a good place to start.