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The SHSAT isn’t the problem, reading is | Opinion

November 11, 2019 Colette Coleman

I’m a woman of color, and I do well on tests. I’m not the only one.

Knowing that I’m not unique in this skill and skin tone, I find it offensive — and borderline racist — to claim that last month’s Specialized High School Admissions Test was discriminatory against black and Latinx students.

This month, the City Council passed a bill to create a task force to evaluate the test and the specialized high schools’ admissions process. The exam’s critics, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, have suggested decreasing the test’s weight in admissions or eliminating it altogether as strategies to diversify the city’s eight specialized high schools. These plans send a dangerous message. They imply that white and Asian American students, who are disproportionately represented in the specialized high schools, are more capable test-takers, and thus, smarter. As a former classroom teacher and test-prep tutor, I know that’s not the case. Performance on the SHSAT is determined by reading, not race.

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U.S. schools are in a literacy crisis. Last week, the National Assessment of Education Progress released the country’s latest literacy data in the Nation’s Report Card. They found that only 34 percent of American eighth-graders can read at a “proficient” or higher level. About one in four aren’t even “basic” readers.

These statistics are bad, but they’re even worse in New York City public schools. And they’re dramatically inferior for black and Latinx students. While nearly half of white eighth-graders read at a “proficient” level or better, only 15 percent of black students can. For Latinx students, a mere 23 percent reach “proficiency.” Asian American eighth-graders perform best; 57 percent are “proficient” or stronger.

The SHSAT is largely a reading test. About half of the three-hour exam is explicitly devoted to  “Reading and Writing,” with most of that section focused on reading comprehension. The math portion includes word problems, which trip up strong mathematicians if they can’t comprehend what a dense question is asking. Given the disparities in reading achievement across different ethnicities, it’s not surprising that there are racial trends in the SHSAT’s results. Specialized high school acceptances shine an uncomfortable spotlight on these discrepancies.

Some critics argue that too much weight is given to one single test when the city uses the SHSAT alone for admissions. They suggest that it would be more fair to add other achievement measures, like grades and teacher input. This well-meaning recommendation ultimately would hurt the students it’s trying to help, though, because it doesn’t address why most kids are having trouble with the test in the first place — they can’t read well.

If the specialized high schools were to accept kids who have lower reading levels but strong work ethics and good grades, those students would flounder in their new, demanding learning environments. K-12 education’s standard recipe directs kids to learn to read in elementary school, and then to read to learn in secondary. If weaker readers were admitted to a school like Stuyvesant (one of the specialized high schools) based on their intelligence and potential, but without any interventions to give them the literacy skills required to navigate the coursework, they’d be set up for failure.


This is why most colleges have test minimums high schoolers must score before their applications are considered. Parents in the “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal understood how important certain single tests are. They paid tens of thousands of dollars to scam the system and ensure their kids would meet the testing bars of their desired schools, at least on paper. These teens who needed to submit false SAT and ACT scores were mostly wealthy and white. They show that strong test performance isn’t simply determined by skin color or even socio-economic status.

As a former teacher, I know how much educators care about students and don’t blame these adults for their pupils’ poor reading outcomes. They can’t be held solely accountable for the long list of societal ills that impact literacy. We must collectively do better.

Students’ literacy should matter to us all because reading levels correlate with success beyond academics. Tomorrow’s parents must be able to comprehend loan agreements so they don’t unknowingly take on adjustable rate mortgages that leave them bankrupt and homeless. Future voters need to be able to understand scientific studies and legal reports, so that they can identify fact from fiction in the news and at the polls.

I’m concerned about students’ literacy not only because I want them to have access to the specialized high schools, but also because I care about their employment options in an increasingly automated economy.

The SHSAT debate is a chance to address our oft-ignored deep educational stain, low literacy. Civil rights leader Malcolm X set a great example. He knew that the key to an impactful life isn’t getting into a top school, like Stuy or Harvard or Yale; it’s reading. He proudly claimed his “alma mater was books.”

Getting rid of the SHSAT would only mask the real problem. Solving it, on the other hand, would guarantee students success far beyond high school.

Colette Coleman is a former classroom teacher who leads strategy at Zinc Learning Labs.


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9 Comments

  1. Thank you Ms. Coleman for speaking truthfully and forcefully on a subject “hiding in plain sight” for decades. Many of us in the literacy advocacy community have been at pains for years to explain the reading gap to the DOE, the NYS Education Dept., our electeds, school officials, and parents. Sadly, movement to correct it has been glacial. Here is an article I wrote on the magnitude the NYC reading gap in 2011 — https://www.gothamgazette.com/education/842-to-help-all-children-read-first-do-the-math. I assure you that it is still current.

    Susan Crawford, Director
    The Right to Read Project
    http://www.righttoreadproject.org
    Author of “Help! My Child Isn’t
    Reading Yet – What Should I Do?”

  2. Keith Hefner

    The writer asserts that if the admissions criteria were changed to a system that takes into account factors other than test scores, students admitted with lower scores “would flounder.” The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, many people also raised that alarm when the University of Texas system went from a more test-score based system to guaranteeing admission to any student in the top 10% of their high school class. The same argument was also made when some colleges started making the SAT optional. In both cases, minority students entered with lower test scores, and there were concerns that they would not be prepared. But in follow up studies, those students did not flounder. They achieved at almost exactly the same rates as their higher scoring peers. Test-based admissions select for students who do well on the tests, but not for the ability to do well in the school.

    • Keith, I went thru the grinder of both the test and the specialized school environment. And believe me, you will not succeed if you can’t pass the test. Because the rigorous environment of these schools, which makes them so successful, is all about constant testing, reading, writing etcetera. It’s the real deal, and if you’re not prepared and qualified from day one – you will fail. And that faiure is not good for anyone – neither the students nor in terms of wasted limited resources. In fact much of my specialized school experience was actually tougher than my college years. This color-blind SCHAT test works well to match applicants to what faces them in these demanding schools. Raise the applicants, don’t lower the standards.

      • BKParentOfOne

        I’m wondering if you are in NYC? Its SHSAT, not SCHAT. Are we talking about the same test? Just checking. The SHSAT test that admitted just 7 black students last year in a freshman class of 895 to Stuyvesant is NOT COLOR BLIND. You can write about the meritocracy of the test all you want. The test itself is flawed if that is the outcome.

  3. Humanbeing

    I agree mostly, but one thing is not precisely clear. Why is that important if someone is a ” woman of color”?
    All woman on earth are woman of color. Have you ever seen a ” see through person”? I have a color as well, my asian friend also has a color…we are all the woman of color.
    Let’s start to write politically correct articles…because we all have colors.

    • Part of the reason is the need to hear the rational voice of a “woman of color” in a debate where all too many voices of division label the color-blind the SCHAT test as racially dicriminatory, in a false us-versus-them scenario. . This, as they demand a false & ultimately destructive “diversity” at any cost.

  4. There is no Southern racist Bull Connor enforcing deliberate discrimination or exclusion of ANY group trying to enter these specialized schools. Instead, only the hurdles of mathematics, of vocabulary, of logic, and reading & writing skills are “standing in the doorways” of these specialized schools. Only a color-blind SCHAT entrance test is the hurdle, a hurdle which says to ALL: “come, compete and try your best to make the cut”. What’s more American than that? What’s more fair than that? What’s LESS discriminatory than that?

    This reality is contrary to the false scenario of deliberate discrimination spread by some opponents of the specialized school entrance exams. Their mistaken call for an ersatz “diversity” is a siren song that divides & distracts us from tackling the real problems of our public school system. Open & color-blind testing, competition and selection is not discrimination – neither racial or otherwise. Instead, it is the essence & foundation of genuine equal opportunity.


    Unwise plans to dilute or do away with the SCHAT specialized school entrance exams will not improve educational opportunities. These schemes will instead to serve to undermine & destroy some of the finest free public schools in the State, and perhaps the nation, all in the name of a false & divisive “diversity”. Should we likewise “diversify” the NBA with white players in proportion to their segment of the population? And while we’re at it, shall we also do away with testing these potential NBA players for their qualifications, and give everyone the “equal opportunity” to play?

    The SHSAT entrance exam has for many decades proven to be an efficient, effective & highly accurate method of selecting those applicants who can best survive and benefit the most from the rigorous learning environment, the strict discipline, and the unique & limited resources of these acclaimed specialized schools – a difficult environment where constant testing, the very same testing that Carranza abhors, is at the very core of a highly successful curriculum. In other words, if you can’t survive the entrance test, you won’t be able to survive four grueling years in these schools. Period. The bottom line is that the SHSAT entrance test measures an applicant’s ability to make the grade & thrive & graduate from these specialized schools, and it does that very well. Sadly, Chancellor Carranza and others seek to sacrifice the standards of these schools, and abandon proven methods of predicting ability and success in the demanding specialized school environment.

    
Asians are the majority in these schools, many of them coming from poor struggling immigrant families. They are shining examples of the immigrant experience, of the American Dream come to fruition — where if you work hard, you’ll have the chance to advance in society. Should we punish these successful Asian applicants for trying so hard to better themselves? Caucasians are a distinct minority in these specialized schools. Should they also demand lowered entrance standards to ensure their greater numbers in these schools – or should these relatively privileged Caucasian applicants try harder to pass the test?

    
In the short term we need to increase the number of specialized schools, for all students who can make the grade, as several of our legislators have suggested. And providing free assistance & preparation to all who wish to compete for the limited spaces available. Instead of falsely scapegoating the entrance test we need to create quality public schools throughout the city, throughout the middle and lower grades , through increased funding, infrastructure, resources and quality teachers. Divisive words are easy. Destroying testing is easy. Lowering standards is easy. Cheap & divisive rhetoric is easy. But achieving actual progress and improvements in our public schools is hard. It’s time for the Chancellor and politicians in the City & State to start doing exactly that and truly earn their salaries.

    
Instead of lowering the admission standards of these top-ranking high schools we need to raise the capabilities of the test-takers. Our goal should be to lift everyone up, instead of watering down standards to the lowest common denominator. If we do that, if go low instead of high, we will never prepare our students for the real world, for work, for life – and will ultimately fail them. In other words: raise the students instead of lowering the standards! Schools should mold the students – not the other way around.

    Competition is the American way, the fair & just way. No guarantees, just a path where if you work hard, you’ll have the opportunity & potential to advance and fully achieve your potential. . It’s a tough road, but it’s a road where anyone can take the SHSAT test, and it doesn’t matter how you look, where you live, or how you sound in an interview; Of course everyone can’t make the grade. If everyone were given a free pass to do so, it would be a meaningless, cruel and worthless scam. It would just be another fake Trump, errr Carranza, University. Just step right up, step right up, and get yer diplomas! Diplomas not worth the paper they’re printed on.

    
Of course every parent wants the best for their children. But parents should realize that their children will be subjected to all sorts of legitimate testing and selection throughout their lives, and not just in school. This is not discrimination, it is reality. Parents need to prepare their children for the real world, for the harsh world, if they want them to compete and succeed in life. Therefore all parents & students should support these specialized schools, their high standards, and their rigorous admissions & testing. The alternative is to water down the standards of some of the best public high schools, in the name of an ultimately destructive cry for a false “diversity”.

    
The Chancellor should unite this diverse city instead of further dividing us. Heal this city Chancellor Carranza , and help bring us together, instead of dividing us by shamefully pitting one group against another – just like a fun-house mirror image of Trump, our Divider-In-Chief. This is not an “us versus them” narrative. For everyone wins, all New Yorkers win, and all students win, when we preserve some of the best and most successful schools in our public educational system, when we preserve them for all to apply & compete – instead of undermining their admission standards, their reputation & their value.