Specialized High Schools

Education department recommends that Pearson continue to provide Specialized High School Admissions Test

Testing giant Pearson would continue providing the Specialized High School Admissions Test under a New York City Department of Education recommendation for a six-year, $13.4 million contract.

The contract calls for Pearson to continue its work aligning the entrance exam to Common Core standards. A new provision would also allow seven high-needs middle schools to administer the test during  the school day in October, rather than on the weekend — a pilot project that education officials hope will result in a more diverse mix of students taking the exam.

A passing score on the SHSAT is the only requirement to get into the city’s elite high schools, which have long been criticized for enrolling few students of color.

While 68 percent of New York City students are black and Hispanic, they make up only 11 percent of students at specialized schools, according to the Department of Education.

Critics have called for multiple measures to be considered for admissions, something Mayor Bill de Blasio has echoed while also blaming state law for tying the city’s hands.

“This is a matter of fairness,” de Blasio said at a press conference on the first day of school. “These are some of the very best high schools in America. They have to be representative of this city’s population.”

The testing contract, which was put out to bid in 2014, was temporarily put on hold as the city explored ways to make specialized high schools more inclusive. In June, the DOE announced a six-point plan to do that, including free test prep, expanding acceptance programs for students who just missed the cutoff scores, and student outreach.

At the middle schools that will pilot giving the test during the school day, all eighth-graders will be signed up to take the exam — but they can choose to opt-out, according to a DOE spokesman.

Lazar Treschan, director of youth policy at the Community Service Society of New York, said such moves usually increase the volume of test-takers without really addressing diversity issues. Treschan said the ultimate goal should be changing the single-test requirement.

“It’s up to the city to decide whether they want to take a stand and do something about that in a big way,” he said.

In October, the Community Service Society was among several advocacy organizations and local officials who sent a letter to schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña on how the city could make schools, including specialized high schools, more diverse. The department already has the authority to make admissions changes at a majority of specialized high schools, they wrote.

Among their suggestions: offering guaranteed admission for top-performing middle school students. A New York University study found that was the only admissions rule change that would substantially alter student demographics at specialized high schools.

A DOE spokesman said in an email that entering into a new contract with Pearson doesn’t preclude the city from moving towards multiple measures for admissions “in the event state law changes.”

The DOE recommended Pearson over competitor Questar, even though the company’s bid came in $1.7 million higher. Still, Pearson showed a “stronger” understanding of the test and presented a “clearer” proposal, according to contract documents.

Pearson has come under criticism for some high-profile test errors, and a nonsensical passage about a pineapple. New York State recently dropped Pearson as its vendor for its English and Math exams.

In an email, a spokesman for the company wrote: “Pearson maintains the highest industry standards for fairness and quality, and we have a proud history of serving students in New York.”

The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the contract Sept. 21.

study says...

Do ‘good’ parents prep their kids for gifted exams? The answer varies by race, study finds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a citywide gifted and talented program, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

Is getting your child into a gifted-and-talented program a mark of good parenting? How you answer may depend largely on your race or ethnicity, according to new research.

Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College in Long Island, interviewed more than 50 white, black, and Hispanic parents at an unidentified New York City school to learn about their attitudes towards gifted programs. (Her sample did not include any Asian parents.)

She found that the white parents view applying for gifted programs and preparing their children to score well on the admissions test as hallmarks of good parenting.

For the black and Hispanic families, being a good parent had more to do with choosing a diverse classroom for their child and not “gaming” the system by practicing for the gifted test, according to the report, which appeared recently in the peer-reviewed journal Teachers College Record.

The report comes as the education department and elected officials are considering how to enroll more students of color in gifted programs.

In New York City, most gifted programs are housed in separate classrooms within a larger school. Often, the two are divided along racial lines, with white and Asian students far more likely to be admitted to gifted programs. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students — who represent 70 percent of the city’s public-school population — comprise less than 30 percent of the gifted-and-talented enrollment.

The most common entry point for gifted programs is kindergarten, with admissions based on test results. The white families Roda interviewed said they felt intense social pressure to have their children take those exams.

Many of them said they questioned whether they should subject their children to such high-stakes testing, but they went along because “everyone else is doing it,” the report says. They also saw it as a pathway to competitive schools in later grades — and even college.

“They know it’s not fair,” Roda said. “They feel the need to do it to get their children on the right track.”

While the black and Hispanic parents Roda interviewed had their children tested for gifted, none reported paying for tutors or otherwise preparing children for the test. For them, having to practice for the test meant your child wasn’t really gifted.

“They know that all of the students who are in those programs were prepped,” Roda said. “So that takes away from the legitimacy of the label and the program they were placed in, and they don’t believe in that.”

Once their children started school, parents of color saw that their kids would be an extreme minority in gifted classes. They also reported that the gifted programs weren’t all that different from the education their children were receiving in general education classes. For those reasons, many opted not to retest their child if he or she initially missed the cut-off score for admission — as opposed to white parents, who repeatedly signed up their children for retakes.

“They just equate it to a way to segregate children whose parents prep them for the test,” Roda said.

Despite the time and resources white families said they poured into preparing for the gifted test, they didn’t think it was an accurate measure of giftedness. On that point, families of color agreed. Black, white and Hispanic families also agreed that school diversity was important.

Understanding those similarities and differences could be important for efforts to better integrate gifted classes and the school system more widely. While some elected officials have called for expanding access to test prep and testing all pre-K students for giftedness as a way to increase black and Hispanic student enrollment, Roda’s research suggests that may not work since parents of color told Roda they were opposed to test prep.

Instead, Roda suggests, the city should begin to spread the practices used in gifted classrooms to entire schools.

“Be more inclusive and enrich the curriculum that way,” Roda said. “And don’t be so focused on the test.”

drinks and debate

What would an equitable high school choice process look like? Chalkbeat readers weigh in.

PHOTO: Stanley Collado
Chalkbeat hosted an event to debate how the high school admissions process could be more fair.

New York City’s choice system is supposed to give every student a shot at attending a top high school. But in reality, low-income students of color are often stuck in low-performing schools.

Last week, Chalkbeat invited a parent and student, a researcher and an admissions advocate, and two education department officials to take part in a public discussion. We wanted to know: When it comes to the high school choice process, what are the barriers separating some students from high-achieving schools — and how can those obstacles be removed?

We want you to join the discussion. Click here or keep reading to learn how.

Two competing schools of thought emerged during the talk, which about 120 people came to watch. On one side, some said the problems revolve around some families’ limited information about how to navigate the time-intensive application process, and solutions should be geared towards improving communication and guidance for families and students.

But others said the problems go much deeper: Students who attend high-needs schools often aren’t prepared to compete for seats in the most exclusive high schools, even as their families often lack the time and resources to help them find other strong alternatives.

“The whole system is flawed and it’s geared to have certain students fail,” said Tanesha Grant, a parent from Washington Heights whose daughter attends Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. “Every child is equal. We make them unequal with the process.’”

After the discussion, audience members — who included people who work in schools and education-oriented nonprofits, along with parents — voted on ways to make the admissions process more fair.

The solution that earned the most votes was reducing or eliminating screened schools, which admit students based on their test scores, interviews and report card grades, among other criteria.

The second most popular solution was providing better information to students and families, perhaps by improving the high school directory or adding more guidance counselors in middle schools who can help guide students through the process.

Many other attendees came up with their own solutions.

Those included: expanding the role of parent coordinators, who are already stationed in schools, to help families understand the process; changing the algorithm that matches students to schools so that diversity is weighed in admissions decisions; and hiring more black and Hispanic teachers who can serve as a welcoming presence when students of color are picking schools. You can find more in the photos.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The audience also submitted dozens of written questions about how the process is working (or not). They wanted to know how much leeway schools get to choose their students, what is being done to help immigrant families understand the process, and how the city can create more high-quality high schools in neighborhoods that lack them.

Now, we want to you to weigh in.

We distilled the audience queries into a handful of questions based on common themes that emerged. We’re hoping to follow up on some of them — but first we want to know which ones are shared by the most readers.

We’d love it if you’d use the form below to vote on which question is also puzzling you — or if there’s another you’d like us to pursue.

Thanks for joining the discussion!