Dumbing it Down in NYC

09/26/2016 05:42 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2017

NYC's Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) voted to approve a format change in the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), which is the sole method of admission to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and the other five specialized high schools.

As reported in Schoolbook, the Department of Education (DOE) says these changes will make the test fairer.

Hmmm.

That brings up a myriad of questions I'm wondering if anyone asked during this process.

My first is: more fair how?

The one change mentioned by Schoolbook is dropping the scrambled paragraphs section in the English portion of the test. From the DOE specialized high school handbook:

Verbal reasoning is measured through five scrambled paragraph items, which require students to place sentences in the correct order to form a paragraph, and 10 logical reasoning questions.

Here's the scoop on scrambled paragraphs. They aren't taught in school. So kids who spend time studying and preparing for the exam would presumably have an increased chance of doing better than those seeing them for the first time.

What's wrong with challenging kids when taking a test to get into challenging schools?

I realize I haven't finished with my first question yet, but this one begs to be asked. From day one at specialized schools, students will be hit with information they haven't seen before. They will, in their high school years, have opportunities to take classes like Macro Economics, Forensic Science, Principles of Computer Science to name a few. It seems logical that reasoning skills would be a valuable prerequisite.

Another important point that gets lost in this discussion - the eight rigorous specialized high schools represent less than .2% of city high schools overall.

But back to the fairness question . . .

New questions taking the place of the soon to be defunct scrambled paragraphs would be more aligned with current seventh grade standards, according to one PEP member.

Which leads to another question: who says students in NYC are being educated equally? By looking at publicly available data one can see there are many students with 1s and 2s on state tests. They aren't necessarily getting the information that would enable them to do well on the SHSAT.

Speaking of that, what about math? Apparently nothing is changing in the math section of the SHSAT, even though it contains material not yet taught in most 7th grade classes. How is keeping that section the same promoting fairness across the board?

Which leads to some more:

Who made this decision? What is it based on? Has any research been done? Who is writing these new questions? Who is vetting the new sections? Will there be advance testing? Has anyone consulted with people from the specialized schools themselves - asking for input from principals, administrators, alumni, parents, current students, those who know the schools better than anyone?

And, at the end of the day, does anyone think this will successfully address the diversity issue in specialized schools or is it another DOE diversion?

Altering the test itself isn't the answer. Neither is changing the admissions policy from the SHSAT to multiple criteria, a viewpoint the Mayor keeps hawking. This isn't just my opinion - research has been done about that possibility.

What could make a significant difference is getting families information early enough about educational options available. Making sure elementary and middle schools are effectively communicating those opportunities in a timely fashion. Better educating kids across the city so they can handle the rigor of specialized schools if they choose to apply and earn a seat. And providing enough high-performing high schools so kids aren't facing a specialized or bust scenario.