Over the past 40 years, the representation of black and Hispanic students in New York City’s top performing high schools has declined sharply and calls for action have become increasingly loud. These calls hit a high note in 2012 when the NAACP filed a legal complaint against the city and reached a crescendo in 2013 when then mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio made bringing change to the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and the specialized high school admissions process the center point of his education platform. As mayor, Mr. de Blasio has continued to point to “expensive test preparation” (or rather the lack of it in certain communities) as a key contributor to the disparity in access to the city’s elite high schools. Unfortunately, when the mayor (and many politicians and educational leaders) discuss test preparation they far too often neglect to actually define what “test preparation” is, who uses it, and what impact it actually has.
Test preparation, as it’s typically thought of, is a short-term, intensive program designed to increase test scores by focusing primarily on building familiarization and developing time-saving strategies, and secondarily on supplementing gaps in content knowledge. This type of preparation is focused on maximizing test scores in the shortest amount of time rather than on long term academic development (which are related but not the same thing). This type of preparation has grown steadily since 1980s when John Katzman established The Princeton Review (the company I currently work for) and introduced the then radical idea that these tests could be “gamed” and scores could be improved with minimal acquisition of new knowledge. This type of test preparation is additive. It is designed to help a test-taker apply the knowledge he has in a more efficient and time-sensitive way. This type of test preparation acknowledges that students often struggle with the nuances and quirks of admissions tests and much as, or more so, than the content. The mayor, when he speaks of test preparation, seems to believe that this is all that test preparation is.
The mayor seems to unaware that, in some communities, the process of preparing for the SHSAT looks nothing like the traditional test preparation described above. The communities who have achieved the greatest representation in specialized schools have often been singularly focused on these schools for years and have created roadmaps to admissions that are laid out and executed before many more disadvantaged families have even begun to think about any high school. This roadmap includes seeking out the elementary schools that most frequently send students to the middle schools that feed the most students to the specialized high schools. Calling this “test prep” grossly undersells its scope and commitment. This is “opportunity stalking.” This is “life planning.” This is laser focus and long term dedication to a particular opportunity path. It’s research-based, information-rich and time-intensive. This path includes not just a short-term, intensive test prep class but long term academic enrichment, not just of general skills but of specific academic skills designed to achieve a specific outcome (SHSAT mastery) years in the future. It’s the kind of strategic planning that’s only available to those who have the time and stability (and information) to make long term educational plans.
The students who win a seat at Stuyvesant or its sister schools have often devoted hundreds of hours over months if not years in preparation for the SHSAT, not 25 hours over a couple months in a test prep class. What is confusing is why so many continue to point to test preparation as the issue when the issue is so much more complex than that. The DOE has known for at least two decades that test preparation isn’t the core issue. Since 1995, the DOE has run its own preparation program (DREAM-SHSI) that delivers 240 hours of preparation over 22 months of academic enrichment and SHSAT practice.
If the mayor is going to cite access to test preparation in an honest and thoughtful way then he must acknowledge and address what test preparation is and its relation to academic preparation that is going in some schools but not others. The demographic outcomes in admissions to the specialized schools (and Hunter College High School) are a problem of schools and education. It’s a problem of segregation of NYC schools. It’s a problem of income inequality and persistent poverty.
In the past few months there have been a few attempts to address the inequality which, while commendable, still skirt the primary driving factors of the segregation of schools and a vastly disparate public education system.
If we want to see substantive change in who is being prepared for the best schools in the city, we have to invest in making all schools equally good before relying on supplemental preparation.
If you’ve not seen this it’s a worthy watch connected to the above.