By at least one measure, IS 187 (The Christa McAuliffe School) in Brooklyn holds the honor of being the best middle school in New York City. In 2017, 82 percent of its students who took the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) got a coveted slot in one of the eight academically demanding schools that use the single test to determine who gets in and who does not.
Mayor de Blasio’s proposal to gradually phase out the SHSAT and offer admission to the top 7 percent of students from all city district middle schools would upend a system where most specialized high-school slots go to a handful of schools. Whether or not the SHSAT survives, a look at what schools fare well on the test offers insight into how the SHSAT in particular and school selection in general works in New York City.
And it is clear that most students get on – or off – the track to go to a specialized high school long before they sit down to take the SHSAT in September of 8th grade.
An analysis of DOE figures found that 15 district middle schools got 50 percent or more of their test takers into one of the schools. (This is not the same as the schools that had the most students accepted, which skews toward bigger schools, although McAuliffe topped that list as well.) On the other hand, about 480 charter and district middle schools – out of about 600 schools– had fewer than 5 students admitted and some likely had none, according to statistics obtained by City Limits. (See the chart below for details.)
The Center for New York City Affairs earlier found that 124 low-performing city middle schools accounted for a total of only nine 7th graders who went on to specialized high schools in 2014-15. And figures from 2015 show that the Bronx, which has more than 160 schools with middle school grades, saw only 120 of its students accepted at a specialized school in 2015.
Given that black and Latino students – who account for about 70 percent of the school system – get only 10 percent of the specialized seats, it is hardly surprising that the top 15 middle schools have far higher percentages of white and Asian students than the city as a whole. Many have relatively affluent student bodies. While about three quarters of New York City student are considered low income, only 8 percent of students at the Anderson School, which saw 77 percent of test takers offered a specialized high school seat, are.
A majority of city middle schools are unscreened, meaning that they accept all students who live in a given area, use a lottery or accept everyone who applies. None of the top SHSAT-placing middle schools are like that: All 15 screen the students they admit to 6th grade.
This echoes research done by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, which found that of the students entering specialized high schools in 2013, only 12 percent came from middle schools that did not screen their students. Many middle schools that select students do so on the basis of their 4th grade standardized test scores and grades—meaning by the time a child is 9 years old he or she may have all but lost the chance to go to Stuyvesant.
And for some, the key decision came years before that – at age 4. The top 15 schools for specialized admissions included all five citywide gifted and talented programs. Although some children enter G&T later in elementary school or in middle school, the main entry point for these programs is kindergarten. Like the SHSAT, G&T admission is based on a single test – and like the SHSAT, many parents have their children prepare for it.
“Gifted and talented programs are segregated and the cycle of school segregation is sustained through school-choice policies,” says Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College who has studied New York’s gifted program. “These policies are perfectly designed to favor certain families over other ones. … All of this just restricts opportunities for students who are low income, who are black and Latino, who are English language learners”
The citywide gifted and talented schools are all majority white and Asian. The district-level gifted and talented programs also use the test, but children can qualify with a lower score. While efforts are underway to diversify these classes, overall the gifted programs in the city are estimated to be about 70 percent white and Asian.
In 10 of the city’s 32 districts no more than a few students scored in the 97th percentile or above, the level the city says is needed to get into a citywide district program, on the 2018 gifted and talented test. While just a small number of children sit for the test in some areas, pass rates vary widely. For example, 45 percent of all children taking the test in Manhattan’s District 2 qualified for a city or district program, but only 9 percent of those in the Bronx’s District 12 did.
New York City is unusual in that it screens children at such a young age for gifted and talented and relies on a single test. The National Associated for Gifted Children advises against that preferring a “portfolio of indicators,” says its executive director, Rene Islas. The group also recommends assessing children more than once, at 2nd grade, perhaps, and again at 6th.
New York’s G&T process is further skewed by schools that can charge more than $1,000 for test prep for students who may barely be out of diapers. Among some parents, says Roda, such prepping has become de rigueur. She says, “It becomes a form of good parenting for them. They see it as a track to the better middle schools and high schools.”
They would not be wrong. Getting into an elementary school gifted-and-talented program may be the best thing parent can to do insure their child a place at a specialized high school.
Early algebra is key
The question is whether that is because the students at these G&T schools are so smart or because the programs at those schools are so good. Many think it is a combination of both. Sean Corcoran, one of the authors of the Research Alliance study, thinks schools play a role but adds, “Most of it is raw talent. These are the kids that have already demonstrated that they do really well” on a competitive test.
The culture of the top middle schools also offers a boost, “It’s the critical mass of kids in one place all feeding off each other,” says Vito LaBella, president of the McAuliffe PTA. “All these people are on the same page and they’re taking about the SHSAT.”
Some of the top schools also offer another leg-up: algebra. Although an increasing number of students now take the state algebra Regents exam in 8th grade, the SHSAT is given in fall of 8th grade, before many have had much formal exposure to the subject.
Those students without formal algebra training before the SHSAT will not be able to master algebra from reading a few test manuals or figuring it out during the test, says Alina Adams, an education writer who advises parents on school choice. “If you have never seen it before in your life, it’s not going to do you any good. It’s like trying to read without ever having seen the alphabet,” she says.
The citywide gifted programs, according to Adams, teach algebra in 7th grade and private academies that prepare students for the test also emphasize it. “We teach algebraic concepts as early as the 5th and 6th grade and definitely devote a large portion of our summer SHSAT curriculum to algebra,” Lulu Zhou, the executive director of A+ Academy, which prepares students for various tests, wrote in an email. She thinks, though, that many public schools start offering some algebra as early as 7th or even 6th grade.
Testing and talent
In her view, the edge that students in some schools have on specialized high school admission does not come from any single class. “I don’t think the SHSAT tests anything crazy — it just tests the knowledge a student should have acquired from grades 3 to 7,” she wrote. Students from the top middle schools do well, she continued, “because they were able to get that solid academic foundation in their middle schools, coupled with their work ethic and family’s engagement and push for them to do well academically (which is how they got into these middle schools to begin with).”
For many students, part of that push is going to schools such as A+, even if they attend a demanding middle school. Almost everyone agrees that the days when students, regardless of their middle school, could pass the SHSAT without prepping in some way are long gone. Some students do that preparation on their own and many take classes, which may start before a student enters middle school. Adams likens this to a student athlete practicing a sport in hopes of making the varsity team. “No one thinks that’s weird,” she says.
“To pass [the SHSAT] takes a huge investment of time and effort, not to mention talent,” says Corcoran. Although his research on the effects of various alternatives to the SHSAT likely helped shape de Blasio’s plan to abandon the test in favor of admitting the top students at all middle schools, Corcoran sees reasons to offer a combination of that system and the test. “I like a mixture because people really are passionate about the test” and see good things about it, he says. “There’s no reason it has to be thrown out entirely.”
Laura Zingmond, senior editor of Inside Schools, sees some justification for changing the admissions process for the specialized schools. “The test culture has gotten out of control,” she says. But, she notes, “The [specialized] schools are intense. The SHSAT process can help assess whether you will be a good candidate to succeed at these schools.”
More than eight high schools
While there are the McAuliffes and the Anderson, students at a number of highly regarded middle schools do not do well on the test. Many of these schools are largely black and Latino. A number emphasize creative ventures or take a more progressive approach to education. Some have students who would prefer to try for the Prep for Prep program that sends students of color to private schools or to audition for an arts school.
Twenty students from the Science, Technology and Research Early Collegiate at Erasmus, an academically selective school in Flatbush, sat for the SHSAT in 2017. More than 90 percent of the school’s students are black or Hispanic; 76 percent are low-income. Despite their school’s high test scores and Regents classes for 8th graders, five or fewer did well enough on the SHSAT to get into one of the eight schools.
Instead, most STAR 8th graders remain there for high school. In four years almost every one of them will graduate and 87 percent will go on to college. Whatever the flaws in the process and the racial, economic and cultural biases that may have resulted in their staying at STAR, it doesn’t seem like a bad decision.
Here’s how the city’s middle schools rank in terms of the share of their SHSAT test-takers who received admissions offers. This list does not include schools where the number of admissions offers was five or less; those numbers are not released by the DOE.
|School Name||SHSAT Test-takers||Selective High School Offers||Rate of offers|
|THE CHRISTA MCAULIFFE SCHOOL\I.S. 187||251||205||81.67%|
|THE ANDERSON SCHOOL||75||58||77.33%|
|NEW EXPLORATIONS INTO SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND MATH SCHOOL||126||91||72.22%|
|NEW YORK CITY LAB MIDDLE SCHOOL FOR COLLABORATIVE STUDIES||163||113||69.33%|
|THE 30TH AVENUE SCHOOL (G&T CITYWIDE)||39||26||66.67%|
|P.S. 122 MAMIE FAY||74||49||66.22%|
|BACCALAUREATE SCHOOL FOR GLOBAL EDUCATION||94||62||65.96%|
|M.S. 255 SALK SCHOOL OF SCIENCE||108||70||64.81%|
|EAST SIDE MIDDLE SCHOOL||124||75||60.48%|
|J.H.S. 054 BOOKER T. WASHINGTON||257||150||58.37%|
|MARK TWAIN I.S. 239 FOR THE GIFTED & TALENTED||336||196||58.33%|
|BROOKLYN SCHOOL OF INQUIRY||80||46||57.50%|
|I.S. 119 THE GLENDALE||104||59||56.73%|
|COLUMBIA SECONDARY SCHOOL||42||23||54.76%|
|TAG YOUNG SCHOLARS||54||27||50.00%|
|M.S. 260 CLINTON SCHOOL WRITERS & ARTISTS||36||17||47.22%|
|M.S. 51 WILLIAM ALEXANDER||280||122||43.57%|
|J.H.S. 074 NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE||233||95||40.77%|
|BATTERY PARK CITY SCHOOL||56||22||39.29%|
|J.H.S. 067 LOUIS PASTEUR||211||82||38.86%|
|INSTITUTE FOR COLLABORATIVE EDUCATION||21||8||38.10%|
|THE MATH & SCIENCE EXPLORATORY SCHOOL||134||51||38.06%|
|QUEENS GATEWAY TO HEALTH SCIENCES SECONDARY SCHOOL||61||23||37.70%|
|PAULA HEDBAVNY SCHOOL||24||9||37.50%|
|J.H.S. 185 EDWARD BLEEKER||250||93||37.20%|
|M.S. 243 CENTER SCHOOL||38||14||36.84%|
|J.H.S. 194 WILLIAM CARR||147||54||36.73%|
|M.S. 158 MARIE CURIE||236||84||35.59%|
|P.S. 184M SHUANG WEN||67||23||34.33%|
|THE SEEALL ACADEMY||113||38||33.63%|
|BROOKLYN PROSPECT CHARTER SCHOOL||24||8||33.33%|
|SCHOOL OF THE FUTURE HIGH SCHOOL||46||15||32.61%|
|P.S. 049 DOROTHY BONAWIT KOLE||43||14||32.56%|
|THE QUEENS COLLEGE SCHOOL FOR MATH, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY||40||13||32.50%|
|ALBERT SHANKER SCHOOL FOR VISUAL AND PERFORMING ARTS||59||19||32.20%|
|J.H.S. 216 GEORGE J. RYAN||304||95||31.25%|
|YOUNG WOMEN’S LEADERSHIP SCHOOL, QUEENS||29||9||31.03%|
|J.H.S. 190 RUSSELL SAGE||172||53||30.81%|
|I.S. 075 FRANK D. PAULO||153||46||30.07%|
|J.H.S. 201 THE DYKER HEIGHTS||338||101||29.88%|
|J.H.S. 167 ROBERT F. WAGNER||258||77||29.84%|
|EAST-WEST SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES||70||20||28.57%|
|I.S. 98 BAY ACADEMY||372||104||27.96%|
|J.H.S. 259 WILLIAM MCKINLEY||309||86||27.83%|
|SPRUCE STREET SCHOOL||36||10||27.78%|
|P.S. 126 JACOB AUGUST RIIS||66||18||27.27%|
|M.S. M245 THE COMPUTER SCHOOL||70||19||27.14%|
|P.S. 102 BAYVIEW||67||17||25.37%|
|P.S. 219 PAUL KLAPPER||29||7||24.14%|
|P.S. 229 DYKER||93||20||21.51%|
|J.H.S. 234 ARTHUR W. CUNNINGHAM||370||79||21.35%|
|TOMPKINS SQUARE MIDDLE SCHOOL||66||14||21.21%|
|J.H.S. 157 STEPHEN A. HALSEY||249||52||20.88%|
|J.H.S. 104 SIMON BARUCH||260||53||20.38%|
|NEW VOICES SCHOOL OF ACADEMIC & CREATIVE ARTS||94||19||20.21%|
|RIVERDALE / KINGSBRIDGE ACADEMY (MIDDLE SCHOOL / HIGH SCHOOL 141)||75||15||20.00%|
|I.S. 025 ADRIEN BLOCK||147||29||19.73%|
|P.S. 128 THE LORRAINE TUZZO, JUNIPER VALLEY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL||46||9||19.57%|
|WEST END SECONDARY SCHOOL||31||6||19.35%|
|P.S. 008 ROBERT FULTON||42||8||19.05%|
|THE BOERUM HILL SCHOOL FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDIES||32||6||18.75%|
|MOTT HALL II||64||12||18.75%|
|I.S. 072 ROCCO LAURIE||139||26||18.71%|
|I.S. 73 – THE FRANK SANSIVIERI INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL||394||73||18.53%|
|J.H.S. 202 ROBERT H. GODDARD||98||18||18.37%|
|I.S. 027 ANNING S. PRALL||77||14||18.18%|
|P.S. 163 BATH BEACH||39||7||17.95%|
|P.S. 206 JOSEPH F LAMB||51||9||17.65%|
|I.S. 281 JOSEPH B CAVALLARO||171||30||17.54%|
|J.H.S. 189 DANIEL CARTER BEARD||97||17||17.53%|
|IRWIN ALTMAN MIDDLE SCHOOL 172||189||33||17.46%|
|I.S. 007 ELIAS BERNSTEIN||129||22||17.05%|
|HUNTERS POINT COMMUNITY MIDDLE SCHOOL||65||11||16.92%|
|P.S. 083 DONALD HERTZ||77||13||16.88%|
|SUCCESS ACADEMY CHARTER SCHOOL – BRONX 2||36||6||16.67%|
|BROOKLYN URBAN GARDEN CHARTER SCHOOL||43||7||16.28%|
|P.S. 226 ALFRED DE B.MASON||44||7||15.91%|
|P.S. 164 QUEENS VALLEY||38||6||15.79%|
|I.S. 141 THE STEINWAY||170||26||15.29%|
|HELLENIC CLASSICAL CHARTER SCHOOL||46||7||15.22%|
|I.S. 5 – THE WALTER CROWLEY INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL||264||40||15.15%|
|J.H.S. 220 JOHN J. PERSHING||181||27||14.92%|
|J.H.S. 217 ROBERT A. VAN WYCK||175||24||13.71%|
|J.H.S. 223 THE MONTAUK||142||19||13.38%|
|I.S. 227 LOUIS ARMSTRONG||206||27||13.11%|
|P.S. 048 WILLIAM G. WILCOX||70||9||12.86%|
|M.S. 137 AMERICA’S SCHOOL OF HEROES||179||23||12.85%|
|J.H.S. 227 EDWARD B. SHALLOW||197||25||12.69%|
|P.S./I.S. 104 THE FORT HAMILTON SCHOOL||87||11||12.64%|
|I.S. 125 THOM J. MCCANN WOODSIDE||272||34||12.50%|
|J.H.S. 210 ELIZABETH BLACKWELL||169||21||12.43%|
|J.H.S. 088 PETER ROUGET||163||20||12.27%|
|I.S. 318 EUGENIO MARIA DE HOSTOS||222||27||12.16%|
|P.S./I.S. 30 MARY WHITE OVINGTON||51||6||11.76%|
|LOWER MANHATTAN COMMUNITY MIDDLE SCHOOL||70||8||11.43%|
|J.H.S. 292 MARGARET S. DOUGLAS||81||9||11.11%|
|J.H.S. 118 WILLIAM W. NILES||270||29||10.74%|
|I.S. 228 DAVID A. BOODY||160||17||10.63%|
|M.S. X101 EDWARD R. BYRNE||66||7||10.61%|
|MIDDLE VILLAGE PREP CHARTER SCHOOL||58||6||10.34%|
|MARSH AVENUE SCHOOL FOR EXPEDITIONARY LEARNING||70||7||10.00%|
|I.S. 034 TOTTENVILLE||81||8||9.88%|
|I.S. 024 MYRA S. BARNES||132||11||8.33%|
|I.S. 096 SETH LOW||114||9||7.89%|
|P.S. 235 JANICE MARIE KNIGHT SCHOOL||89||7||7.87%|
|CONSELYEA PREPARATORY SCHOOL||90||7||7.78%|
|JEAN NUZZI INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL||117||9||7.69%|
|J.H.S. 278 MARINE PARK||98||7||7.14%|
|J.H.S. 127 THE CASTLE HILL||133||9||6.77%|
|I.S. 181 PABLO CASALS||124||8||6.45%|
|I.S. 051 EDWIN MARKHAM||101||6||5.94%|
|I.S. 145 JOSEPH PULITZER||137||7||5.11%|