What Makes the SHSAT So Hard?

This week’s blog post is guest-written for PASSNYC by Akil Bello, a career test prep teacher and tutor who has spent 25 years helping people prepare for admissions tests, and board member of PASSNYC. You can contact Akil at akil@passnyc.org. 

As we approach September in New York, we enter that special time of the year affectionately known as "fall hell," when parents of students in every transition grade realize that admission testing is looming. Parents of 11th and 12th graders have to think about SAT and FAFSA, parents of 7th and 8th graders are thinking about the ISEE, SSAT, SHSAT, TACHS, COOP, and/or HSPT, parents of 4th and 5th graders are thinking about the SSAT, ISEE and/or Hunter High School exam. This time of year can clearly bring lots of stress and confusion.

In this post, I'll take on the SHSAT, explain how it's different from other exams, and share the top 3 things you can do to prepare. Let's go...

What is the SHSAT?

The SHSAT is the Specialized High School Admission Test. The student's grade on the exam is the only factor used to determine which of the 27,000 test-takers are given one of about 5,100 offers (18% of test-takers) for a seat at the 8 specialized schools. The SHSAT is the primary (and nearly only) gatekeeper for admission to these schools (how a student ranks the schools is the other factor, but that's too much to get into today). 

Here is how the test is structured:

How is it different? 

Unlike tests taken in school or statewide assessments, the SHSAT is designed to predict performance at a small set of highly rigorous high schools. As such, the SHSAT has a much looser relationship to state or national standards and only a passing similarity to the content of a 6th or 7th grade classroom. The narrowness of the use of the exam creates a test that is by design and intent different from the statewide assessment test, which is designed for all students studying under state standards.

While the state wants all students to achieve proficient or better on the statewide tests, the DOE doesn't want nor can it have all students achieve a score good enough for admission to the specialized schools.

This difference in philosophy leads to differences in test design, timing, and even scoring. Since many of the technical elements of the test are probably too much to discuss here, let's explore some differences in the reading section.

SHSAT Reading vs NYS ELA Assessments

The NYS ELA Assessment (NYSELA) is designed to assess whether a student has achieved proficiency on the learning standards defined by the state. For your typical 7th grader, this means being able to read and answer questions from passages at grade level by the end of the school year. The NYSELA thus uses reading passages that are written in a style and using vocabulary that your typical 7th grader should be used to. I examined the released items from the 2015 ELA exam and below you can see some statistics from the Flesch-Kincaid analysis (you can learn more about reading scales here).

Note that the average grade level score for this test seems appropriate to a 7th grader. By comparison, this NY Times article about Kaepernick scores a 5.8, and this blog post is a 10.0 grade level. On the other hand, the SHSAT has to use reading passages that are much more complex in order to weed out significant portions of students. Here are the numbers from the same evaluation of the set of 5 passages (every SHSAT has 5 passages with 6 questions each) from the first sample test in the 2013 DOE Handbook:

Looking at the results from this sample (admittedly small) we can see that while the passages are shorter on the SHSAT, they are generally more complex. The typical passage is at least 3 grades above that of the passages on NYSELA. Therefore, it is much more likely that a student who has trouble with reading will encounter passage after passage that is challenging if not incomprehensible on the SHSAT. On the NYSELA, having some easier and some harder passages means that a student will have moments of relief as they are able to understand some of the passages given. 

But complexity of writing is not the only factor that impacts why a child doing well in school and on state tests might not excel on the SHSAT. Let's next look at the timing of the two exams. 

How is the timing different? 

The timing of an exam is very important. Not only does it impact how many questions you answer, it also impacts the feeling of "rushing" that a student must deal with during testing. The more rushed a student feels, the more likely they are to make mistakes.

The SHSAT gives 150 minutes to complete all 95 questions (both math and verbal), while the statewide tests this year became untimed. For the purpose of comparison, I'm going to use the timing data for the NYSELA from 2015 when the NYSELA had a (generous) time limit (and had a few more questions) and will estimate the time for the Reading test as 60 minutes since the recommended time for the 45 verbal questions in 75 minutes.

As you can see, students taking the SHSAT have about 2 minutes per reading question, and have to read the passages almost twice as quickly. Meanwhile, the time allotted for the state test has been much more generous--even before this year's change to completely remove time limits! Not only does this give students more time to work on the test, it also removes the perceived pressure to work quickly, which in my experience accounts for a huge percentage of errors on tests. 

What do you do about it?

Given the significant differences in the purpose, design and timing of these tests, it's not surprising that a student might perform very differently on the SHSAT and state exams. Even a student doing very well in school may have a lot of trouble with the SHSAT. 

Therefore, if your family is considering applying to a private, specialized, or religious school, it is helpful to start preparing from 18 months to 2 years in advance. Here are the three most important things you can do to prepare:

  1. Understand that the SHSAT is different from other tests. The SHSAT has different content and structure from the exams that students are used to. Don't assume that a student doing well in school will have an easy time with the SHSAT. Get familiar with the exam so you know what to expect!
  2. Find the right test prep program for you. Test preparation can help mitigate the differences and help students understand what the test is and how it's different from other exams they are familiar with. There are a lot of options across neighborhoods at different price points. Take a look below and on the PASSNYC partners page for some great test prep providers that serve NYC families!
  3. Read, read, read! We saw above that the reading material on the SHSAT is harder than much of the reading material students will be exposed to in school. So, parents should consistently help their children improve their reading abilities. Parents should encourage children to read as much and as often as possible, especially more challenging material.

If you're interested in SHSAT and NYC Specialized schools, here are a few links you should read:

Here are some organizations that help students prepare for admissions to various school types:

Middle and Elementary School into High School

High School into College