shsat coke 2

SHSAT 2017 – A Deeper Dive

After announcing changes in September 2016 and then teasing us with 10 sample questions and an FAQ in January 2017, the DOE finally released two full sample tests in May of 2017.  The sample tests were included in the 2017 – 2018 Specialized High School Handbook and I spent the month of June perusing, categorizing, and quantifying the questions contained therein.  With that work done (well it was finished in June but I didn’t get motivated to blog until this morning .. thanks Stacey H), I’m here to share all that I know about the changes to the SHSAT for 2017.

First let me start by saying the changes aren’t radical alternations in the like what they did to the SAT a couple years ago, it’s more of a shift or evolution than a redesign. We are talking about going from shsat coke 2using an iPhone 6 to an iPad Mini, drinking Diet Coke to Coke Zero or Coke Life, or driving a Camry instead of an Accord. It’s a change but not really a difference. But since there are changes, no matter how trivial, I’ll take some time to define, quantify, and categorize them so that families have the most up-to-date and complete information possible. Read on to learn about the changes and how they might be relevant to you.


What Does the 2017 SHSAT Test

Even before we get into the changes are let’s remember what the SHSAT is and what it’s designed to do. The SHSAT is a standardized admission test used to identify the 5000 best and brightest 8th graders from among the more than 70,000 8th graders in NYC.  The Specialized High Schools Admission Test (SHSAT – let’s all pronounce it shat) is designed based on the premise that the things tested are those things that early 8th graders should be able to do if they have been taught according to state 7th grade curriculum and excelled. This means it’s likely that if a test taker fully learned and mastered 7th grade state standards, than that test taker will likely do well on the SHSAT. This theoretical description of the test gets more complicated when we acknowledge that the lines between 6th, 7th, and 8th grade topics is sometimes blurry and teachers have some flexibility with regards to the depth and breadth with which they cover a topic. So a high performing 7th grader at one school might be a low or average performing 8th grader at another school and that’s where the discrepancies between doing well in school and doing well on test often arises. For parents trying to get their child prepped for the SHSAT you should be that the subject matter of the exam isn’t completely foreign to your child and is not substantially changed from years past but the test will, by design, present a challenge to most students no matter how well they performed on the statewide assessments or on their report cards.

What Is the Format of the Test and What has Changed

The overall format of the exam saw a few minor tweaks including reducing the number of answer choices from 5 to 4, adding experimental (embedded and unscored) questions which increased the total number of questions from 95 to 114 (and increasing the time to 180 minutes in order to maintain the time per question ratio). Despite this, the SHSAT remains a standardized test testing 6 – 8th grade English and Math with about 100 multiple choice questions that allots about 1.5 minutes per question. Here is a breakdown of the question types on the old version vs the new:

ela test old vs newUntitled1

What’s on the ELA Section

So let’s start by looking at the English Language Arts section (nee Verbal). The Section Formerly Known as Verbal saw 2 question types dropped and replaced by 2 new questions types. Logical Reasoning and Scrambled Paragraphs, which were 15 questions or 33% of Verbal questions, are now history and have been replaced by the Revisions/Editing questions, which will be 20 questions or 35% of ELA questions. Revision/Editing questions should in theory be better for test takers since it is likely more familiar to students than were Logical Reasoning or Scrambled Paragraph questions. Reading Comprehension will still make up the bulk of the ELA section and those questions are entirely unchanged. Let’s look more closely.


Revision/Editing Questions 

Revision/editing questions are new to the exam. These are probably the biggest change to the exam and students should make sure they spend some time getting comfortable with not only the format but also the content. Since there is nothing like this tested on the statewide assessments there is a good chance many schools didn’t heavily integrate the topics and rules tested on these questions into their curriculum.


Here is a sample question:


Note that the question asks about correcting a “misplaced modifier.” This question highlights that no one should take this test without having at least done the two practice tests in the 2017 Handbook. What if the student isn’t familiar with misplaced modifiers? How can someone correct something they haven’t heard of? Here’s another.




Note how this question is asking the test taker to identify the “inappropriate shift in verb tense.” With questions like this I worry for the students who might be able to fix the grammar issues but are unfamiliar with the terminology. It seems a strange design by the test designers and it does nothing to help identify students with an understanding of grammar that could not have been accomplished without the weirdness.


Doing well on the revision and editing questions will require a test taker to become comfortable with all the terms and concept that the SHSAT might ask about. Here is a brief list of concepts and terms culled from the two released tests in the Handbook:

  • Quantitative Information
  • Logical sequence
  • Transitions
  • Precision
  • Concision
  • Modifier
  • Verb tense
  • Pronoun person and number
  • Pronoun Clarity
  • Pronoun agreement
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Possessive nouns and pronouns
  • Items in a series


The revision/editing questions will come in two forms one type based on a sentence or two and the other based on a passage.


Reading Comprehension

The reading comprehension passages are almost completely unchanged in content or style (here’s my analysis of the textual complexity of reading passages from 2016), the only change is the number of passages and questions. On the old exam, there were 5 passages with 6 questions each for a total of 30 reading comprehension questions. On the new exam, there will be 6 passages which will have from 5 to 7 questions each for a total of 37 questions. The best evidence for the consistency of the reading passages and questions is that the new handbook reuses passages from the 2011 and 2013 Handbooks and almost all of the questions and answers that went with those passages are reused with only minor changes to wording. Here is a sample of one of the few “substantially changed” questions (the passage associated with each passage is unchanged):


This first question is from the 2013 Handbook:


This version of the question is from the 2013 Handbook.
This slightly altered version of the question is from the 2017 DOE Handbook.


This question is one of the few in which almost all of the choices are changed, most questions were repeated from the earlier handbooks without any edits at all. There are even 1 or 2 new questions added to old passages, but overall reading comprehension is exactly the same as it’s been for the last decade or so.


What About Math

Like Reading Comprehension, math is math and remains pretty much indistinguishable from prior versions of the math. Pearson (in their infinite quest to squeeze every drop of blood money from these tests) reuses some of the math questions that have been in the Handbooks for years. The topics test and style of questions remains consistent with previous years. Here are a couple of my favorite reuses.


math change
This version of the question has been in the Handbooks in 2013 and in 2014 at the very least.


tien 2
In this new version of the question Tom becomes Tien. I guess there was a quota for “diverse” names to hit.


Here are a couple more.


This wasnt the first time the creative geniuses at Pearson decided to use "lorks" in a question.
This wasn’t the first time the creative geniuses at Pearson decided to use “lorks” in a question.
The 2017 version has slightly better formatting, I wonder what DOE paid Pearson to make that change.
The 2017 version has slightly better formatting, I wonder what DOE paid Pearson to make that change.



The only new element of the math section is the introduction of 5 grid in questions. The challenge with Grid-ins isn’t the math so much as it is filling the grid in properly. A test-taker should make sure they understand how to fill in the grid so they don’t lose points by filling things incorrectly. Check out sample Grid-in instructions below:




Beyond the grid ins, the math introduces no new questions types or content areas. However, the challenges presented by the math of the old test were enough of a challenge for many students. Let’s look some elements of the math and what made it and continues to make it challenging.


First, when you look at the scope of the test one might notice that the SHSAT tests a wide swath of accumulated math knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge. The chart below shows some of the most topic topics and subtopics that appear on the test and the rough percentages that they appeared in on the Handbook practice tests.

math percents - topics


As you can see from above, the test covers a wide range of topics (and the chart doesn’t list all of the ~40 different content areas identified on the sample tests). The scope of the exam is one of the things that makes it a challenge to many students, who are likely more used to tests that only test them on 2 or 3 weeks worth of material rather than 2 to 3 years worth. This test will ask students to not only be able to perform well on a wide range of topics but it combines those topics and often presents them as word problems.About 50% of the problems on the test are word problems (problems that present a story or situation and requires the test taker to figure out the math that must be done to answer the question).


Another challenge presented by the SHSAT Math Section is that while it does tests topics that are learned in school, its presentation of them is often more complex than that seen on the statewide assessment, so even a student who does well on the statewide assessment might struggle with the SHSAT. Let’s look at a few math questions.


This first question, from the statewide assessment, tests the ability to convert fractions to decimals and then add with negatives. If a test taker recognizes that this is a conversion question, the problem should not be too difficult mathematically. This question, however, was answered correctly by only 40% of students in 2016.


Even though only 40% of NYC 7th graders got that question correct, this type of question is not common to the SHSAT. The SHSAT tends to include a reasoning element in its questions that require the test taker to figure out what math needs to be done rather than simply giving the required operational symbols in the problem. Here are two representative examples of how the SHSAT would test fractions:


fraction 2fraction 93



Question 85 is likely comparable in difficulty to the statewide assessment fraction question. It requires finding common denominators, adding mixed numbers and possibly conversion from improper to proper fractions. This question would probably be answered correctly by more than two-thirds of the SHSAT test takers. This kind of “straight math” question (requiring little reasoning) makes up only about half the SHSAT, while that type of question makes up more than 75% of the statewide assessment.


Question 93, on the other hand, requires not only the ability to add and convert fractions but also understanding of number lines (specifically the distinction between location, distance, and value). This question also gives no operational symbols and thus requires the test-taker to figure out what math has to be done to solve the problem.


Hope this helps. If you think I missed anything or got anything wrong let me know in the comments.



NYS 7th Grade Math Standards – PDF

NYS 7th Grade ELA Standards – PDF


Here are some more organizations that help students prepare for admissions to various school types:

Middle and Elementary School into High School

  • Exam School Partnership Initiative –
  • Stuy Prep –
  • DREAM – SHSI –


  • Breakthrough NY (also exists in other cities) –
  • Oliver Scholars –
  • A Better Chance –
  • Say Yes to Education –

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