Yasmeen Khan is an associate producer covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
Beginning this weekend, eighth graders from around the city will take the test that determines who gets seats in eight specialized public high schools. Competition for these spots is fierce. Last year, 27,612 eighth graders took the specialized high schools admissions test (SHSAT), a 2 1/2-hour multiple choice exam. Fewer than 6,000 received an offer of admission.
The conceit of the one-test admissions policy is that it would be merit-based and color blind. Many students who make it to these schools study for months or years for the exam, some with private tutors or guidance from knowing parents. Given that more than 70 percent of the city's public school students are black and Latino, relatively few black and Latino students make it to these competitive schools. The city has tried to help close the disparity with a specialized high schools institute for promising low-income students. Middle schools and other community-based organizations also offer courses to help students prepare for the test.
A few students at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the south Bronx are taking the test this year. Applied Math and Science goes from sixth to 12th grade, and most students stay on for high school. But all students are told about the SHSAT and are given the option to take the exam.
Five Applied Math and Science eighth graders shared their thoughts on preparing for the test. Listen to their stories below.
Dahiana Peña, 13
Dahiana has been studying for the exam through the ENLACE program, part of The Bronx Institute at Lehman College. She said she would not mind staying at Applied Math and Science, which she calls a good school with good opportunities. But she said attending a specialized high school "would be above and beyond."
Oluwatobi Mojeed-Balogun, 13
Oluwatobi, who goes by Tobi, said that even though he is used to taking standardized tests, he sees the SHSAT as a different animal that could help determine his future. He has been studying for the test on his own and with the help of his father, who Tobi said is especially good at math. Tobi's recipe for staying focused on test day: a good night's sleep, followed by a Monster energy drink and pancakes.
Rachel Arauz, 12
Like Dahiana, Rachel has also been prepping for the SHSAT through the ENLACE program. She said she wants to go into medicine and that attending a specialized high school would help set her on that path.
Zakaria Elkatani, 13
Zakaria has been getting nudging and support to take the SHSAT from his parents and, especially, his older sister. He began studying for the exam on his own last summer. He said only the best students get into specialized high schools, and he would like to be one of them.
Nicole Diaz, 13
Nicole says she isn't sure what kind of career she might want yet, but she knows it will have something to do with math. She began preparing for the SHSAT during a math camp over the summer, and has been studying on her own since then. She says getting into a specialized high school would be great, but she doesn't mind if she doesn't either.