For the last few years, the NYC DOE has been under pressure to address the demographic imbalances at the Specialized High Schools. While considered some of the city’s (and even the nation’s) top schools, these schools have not reflected the diversity and demographics of the city as a whole in decades. The De Blasio administration took steps to increase the diversity of these schools and signaled that they would actually attempt to address the fact that only 11% of specialized schools are black or hispanic while approximately 70% of other city schools are. The administration took another step later in the fall when it paved the way for changes to the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT) , the sole means of entry to the Specialized High Schools.
It’s worth noting that the willingness of the administration to take on the problem of the diversity of the schools and attempt to control for any contribution to inequities in access that might stem from the SHSAT is brave and commendable since many alum and politicians opposed any changes whatsoever. The revisions to the exam that were released today are the first significant changes to the exam in decades, despite the fact that curriculum and education have change significantly in that span. While these changes will likely not change the demographic distribution of scores, it does address some of the problems the test itself contributed to. The revisions listed below will appear on the October 2017 administration of the SHSAT.
The Big Changes
Overall, the changes to the test amount to more of a botox injection rather than a facelift. Few of the revisions will have a profound impact on how students prepare for the exam or who will do well on it, but three changes will significantly change the look and feel of the exam:
- Scrambled paragraphs and logical reasoning removed.
- Editing/revision questions introduced.
- Introduction of “field test” questions.
These changes will be the most visible and have the greatest impact on the testing experience. The removal scrambled paragraphs (5 paragraphs worth 10 raw points) and logical reasoning (10 questions worth 10 raw points) is potentially a boon to test-takers since it removes question types that it was highly unlikely that any student who did not directly prepare for the SHSAT exam had ever encountered. Revision/editing questions, which are designed to assess elements of writing that are found in the 7th grade Common Core State Standards, have been introduced and will replace in equal measure the removed question types.
The final major change is the introduction of “field test” questions or what are often referred to as experimental questions. These questions are not scored but are included for research purposes for the test maker. In the past the SHSAT either did not include unscored questions or didn’t admit to it. A test-taker will not know which questions will be unscored and thus must treat all questions as if they count.
The Small Changes
These three minor changes will do very little to impact how a test-taker takes the test or performs but are worth noting.
- Introduction of “grid-in” questions.
- Answer choices reduced from 5 to 4.
- Increase of test time from 150 to 180 minutes.
Grid-ins are worth noting because filling in the answers in the grid box will be unfamiliar to test-takers who have probably never seen this format of question. Instead of getting the standard A through E bubbles the test-taker will fill their answer in a grid-box as shown below, which allows for more than 26,000 different combinations of answers on each question. Fortunately, since there are only 5 grid-ins out of the 57 math questions the impact of any confusion will hopefully be minimal at worse.
Changing from 5 to 4 options answer choice options will be a benefit to test-takers in that they will have fewer choices to read (saving time) and a better chance to guess correctly (increasing from 20% to 25% probability of a correct answer). The increase in testing time while not insignificant is not onerous as its only 30 minutes, though it does add to an already long day.
In the final tally, these changes won’t do much to change the landscape of test preparation that has in part contributed to the lack of diversity in these schools (in fact when there are changes to a test this typically leads to an increase in test preparation). The revisions make small steps toward ensuring that the test itself is not adding to these problems by including question types and content that is completely removed from the content areas required by the state and the curriculum taught in schools.