Students will take the Specialized High Schools Admission Test next week, seeking entry to one of the city's elite public high schools. Despite the pandemic having closed their middle schools, they'll return to those classrooms to take the exam in person.
"It seems incredibly unfair to put families in the position where they, again, any family who chose remote learning, now has to choose whether it is worth jeopardizing the safety and health and well-being of people in their household to send their student, their children, in to take this test,” said Patrick Finley, co-principal of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, a school for grades six through twelve.
The exam is the only criteria for getting into the schools, which include Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech.
The test has long faced criticism. Both Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza blame it for the lack of Black and Hispanic students in the specialized schools.
It is normally given in October, but because of the pandemic, the de Blasio administration moved it to January 27th. And to prevent large numbers of eighth graders from gathering at centralized testing sites, students will be able to take the exam at their own middle schools. But some principals say the shift puts an unfair burden on those middle schools.
"We now have to pull resources from our already stretched school communities in order to administer this test that we've never had to administer before — so it seems like all of the schools, hundreds of middle schools and teachers, now have to take the resources away from their school in order to serve the needs of eight schools,” Damon McCord, Finley’s co-principal, said.
McCord said he had sat through a two-hour training this week on the exam, and that the school had been sent “dozens, maybe hundreds of pages of documents that we’re supposed to know inside and out” ahead of the exam.
Teachers who normally would be teaching students live via video chat will instead have to proctor the exam, leaving their students without live instruction.
There are also safety concerns. Unlike elementary school students, the middle schoolers who will take the exam have not been regularly tested for coronavirus. They will be required to undergo health screenings, and the Education Department says parents have been urged not to send their children to the exam if they’re sick or quarantined, and told they’ll be given opportunities to make it up.
Finley McCord wrote Carranza and de Blasio with their concerns, in an open letter that’s now been signed by nearly two dozen of their colleagues.
An Education Department spokeswoman praised principals in the city for going above and beyond this year, and for being flexible.
“We are required by state law to administer the SHSAT and have provided materials that minimize any extra work that needs to be done, trainings for a smooth process, and compensation for both administrators and proctors,” spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon added.
The principals suggested the city offer the exam online instead. But DOE says that could be unfair to students who have poor internet or lack a quiet place to take the test. However, those same children have been learning from home since November.
"Instead of focusing on the Specialized High School Admission Test, we should be focusing on making sure all of our students have reliable internet and devices,” McCord said.