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Specialty High School Admissions/Proposed Changes and Need for Discussion
By NYS Assembly Member Rebecca A. Seawright


Specialty High School Admissions/Proposed Changes and Need for DiscussionAs a member of the Education Committee of the New York State Assembly, I voted “NO” on the bill introduced near the end of the last legislative session that sought to substantially change the admissions criteria of Specialty High Schools (SHS) and to eliminate the specialized high school admission test (SHSAT).

The bill was announced on a Friday in June with a vote then immediately scheduled on the following Wednesday at the Education Committee. I stand by my vote and public statement at that time.  Expressing my strong reservations, I insisted we need input from all stakeholders, public hearings, the opportunity for views to be aired, questioned asked and answered and for all communities to be heard.  Shortly thereafter the Committee meeting, at which the bill narrowly passed in a contentious environment, the Assembly leadership wisely withdrew the bill from consideration. But the subject is far from over. 

So last week, I co-sponsored with the Education Committee of Community Board 8, a Forum on the issues. The event confirmed my belief in how essential public discourse is on these educational policies.

The room was over-flowing with interested parents and guardians. There were over-flowing passions as well; expressions of concern by family members about the future of their children. Critical for me, as an elected representative, was the opportunity to listen to the questions being asked. Quite frankly, it was important to bear witness to the genuine anxiousness in the room regarding proposed changes that would upset the educational plans that many of my constituents have for their children.

As part of the evening program, they heard directly from representatives of the NYC Department of Education (DOE) about the proposed plan, which would phase out the SHSAT over a three-year period — something most in the room had not actually seen before our Forum. The DOE presented the multiple factors the proposal set forth for future admissions. The proposal includes expanding the Discovery Program to 20% of the seats at each Specialty High School (until the SHSAT is phased out over three years).  The Discovery Program is a summer program that provides enrichment that helps high-performing, economically disadvantaged students gain admissions to the Specialty High Schools. Over a three-year period, the DOE would phase out the SHSAT and offer admissions to the top 7% of students from each DOE public middle school, with consideration given to (1) their 7th grade New York State Math and ELA exam scores and (2) their 7th grade English, math, social studies and science course grades compared to others in their school. Furthermore, any student would have to be in the top 25% of top ranking students to earn admissions.  

During the phase out process, the SHSAT will gradually be eliminated as an admissions criteria. During the first year, 75% of admits will be based on the exam score (25% will be granted to the top 3% of each middle school), the second year will see a 50/50 split between SHSAT score admits and the top 5% from each middle school until eventually the new admissions process of the stated middle school academic record from middle school is in place. Special note (one which will affect many families) is that prospective students who are not already in the NYC public school system will have a much less likely chance of gaining a seat in one of our Specialty High Schools as those with at least a GPA of 93 (A-) will enter into a lottery for any remaining seats.  

It was apparent that there are no simple solutions to balance maintaining academic standards with increasing diversity and fairness.  So we organized and presented a panel that offered different perspectives on the situation — Larry Cary, a Brooklyn Technical High School alumnus who believes the test should remain as an academic standard; David Bloomfield, a Professor of Educational Leadership at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, who is opposed to the single test being a measure; and Amy Hsin, a Professor of Sociology at Queens College and a member of the NYC School Diversity Advisory Committee, who reflected on the qualities of “deservedness” and “work ethic” and the judgments made about each. It was a robust, highly informative discussion.

The discussion we began in our District will continue. Though the next legislative session is not scheduled until January, 2019, and the next NYS Executive Budget will be the predominate focus through the Spring, we must prudently use the time now to tap community input. We must continue to listen and learn and enlighten each other before we consider any changes that will affect many future generations of NYC residents. We must be prepared to reject any rush to judgment.  

Anyone wishing to get a copy of the DOE’s presentation regarding the proposed changes to SHSAT may contact my office by phone at (212) 288-4607 or by email at seawrightr@nyassembly.gov. #

NYS Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright represents the 76th District.



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