You may have read in recent news that the stakes for the New York City specialized high school admissions are very high. At the center of this heated discussion is a little known test named the SHSAT -- a standardized test that is designed to assess middle school curriculum content mastery for students entering these high schools. Being local to New York and a company that has taught many middle schoolers in this city since 2012, we thought it timely to put out a quick run-down of this test.
So... what is the SHSAT?
The Specialized High School Admissions Test is meant to assess knowledge and skills that are grade and subject specific. You should definitely read up on the bare-boned explanation that is put out by NYC Department of Education here. Like many standardized tests in middle and high school, the English section tests a student's ability to read and interpret questions, while the math section asks students to solve grade appropriate questions. The math includes the dreaded word problems, along with computational questions. The test is timed: start to finish, students have 180 minutes (3 hours) to take the exam. Also, you should know that the test is scored out of 800, and each specialized high school has a different cut-off for their required score.
What schools require the SHSAT?
In order to attend a specialized high school in New York, you must be an 8th or 9th grader and take the SHSAT. The following specialized high schools require the test:
- Bronx High School of Science
- Brooklyn Latin School
- Brooklyn Technical High School
- High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College
- High School for American Studies at Lehman College
- Queens High School for Sciences at York College
- Staten Island Technical High School
- Stuyvesant High School
What determines candidacy at these schools?
Each school has a cut-off score, though they vary from school to school here. There isn't a place you can find the school cut-offs formally; however, parents have informally collated information on school (you can view it here). Anecdotally, Stuyvesant high school is the most competitive in terms of cut-odd score, while Brooklyn Latin is least competitive.
Another note: students must rank order of preference when applying to these schools. Schools take into account their preference along with their score when determining their admittance.
How do I prepare my student for the test?
Start early on the academic work
I can't emphasize this enough -- the best way to make sure your student is prepared for this exam is to start early on academic preparation, making sure that they're keeping up with their middle school coursework and understanding the material that is taught in their classrooms. The test is related to the curriculum standards for grade readiness in New York, and so your student's teachers will be connecting their lessons to these standards. Our most successful students are ones who have been exposed to critical reading, expository writing, and mathematical reasoning skills early, so that the content is place for them to succeed.
Read the handbook & help the student understand it
My next suggestion is to read the handbook that New York releases yearly on what is on the exam. Review this, in detail, with the test-taker to ensure they understand the format of the exam, how much time they're given for each question, and the types of questions they'll encounter.
Start using the official materials to build a study plan
The third suggestion? Begin reviewing the content, as specified in the handbook, to test where the student's weaknesses are. Don't have them sit for the timed practice test that is in the handbook until you understand the student's strengths and weaknesses (it is demoralizing, first off; and secondly, exposes them to one of the few official practice tests out there). Once you have a better understanding of what content needs to be reviewed, help the student close the gaps. Reach out to a teacher and ask whether or not they have exercises to help the student practice.
Having a clear understanding of content gaps before you start drilling is essential to the student's success. Use the resources at your disposal (school admin, teachers, tutors, classmates, or families in your community) to address these gaps before drilling them on practice questions.
Now, administer the practice test
You should be aware that there are only a few official practice tests released by New York Board of Education out there, and you should reserve them. (I count two in the handbook, with the answers explained). When you think your student is ready, content-wise, print and proctor the test under timed conditions. Make sure you simulate real testing conditions to the best of your ability, timing the test and providing the appropriate breaks. After you grade the test, be sure to debrief the incorrect answers with the student. Given what the data suggestions and what the student anecdotally has to say about their incorrect responses, you should build a new study plan that maps on to the content gaps. You should reserve the second test until you believe that student has addressed these content gaps fully.
How can we help?
We're a local New York tutoring company that has been teaching towards this test for years. All of our tutors are very familiar with high stakes admissions exams (they're mainly from Harvard, MIT, Columbia, and NYU), and can build a customized syllabus for students that maps onto the strengths and weaknesses in content and standardized test taking. We pride ourselves in treating our tutors exceptionally well (we were founded by Harvard PhDs), and as such pay our tutors the majority of the fee charged.
I should also mention that we do everything in our power to accommodate financial need, and do offer financial aid to families who qualify. You should give us a call to discuss your situation and we'll let you know what we can do.