An Expert’s Guide to the New York City SHSAT

To nearly 30,000 New York City students each year, the acronym “SHSAT” can bring anxiety as well as opportunity. It stands for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, and it is currently the sole criterion for entry into one of eight of the most elite public high schools among hundreds of options throughout the city. These eight institutions, along with Laguardia High School of Music & Arts and Performing Arts, represent the New York City Specialized High Schools.

I spent years supervising the administration of the SHSAT for the New York City Department of Education (NYC DoE), and I’ve learned a few things about the schools, the exam, its scoring, and what families need to know if their child is sitting for this test.

Why Are These Schools Special?

Originally only three institutions — Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, and Bronx Science — required students to take the SHSAT for admission. That list has now swelled to eight schools, with Brooklyn Latin entering the ranks in 2006.

The combination of the elite status of these schools, along with their reliance on a single measure for entry (at least for the time being!), has contributed to the aura surrounding them. For kids and their families, the impression is typically that admission to a specialized high school will provide a ticket to some of the best colleges and universities throughout the country. While this may or may not be true, it is certainly the case that these schools offer rich educational experiences to their students, and many of their graduates go on to highly selective four-year institutions.

How Do I Learn About the Schools?

To help families learn about the specialized testing high schools, the city will typically ask that each one offer a large open house in the fall. Some of the schools also provide tours and other events on their own; you can check their respective websites for details. In addition, these schools send representatives to the citywide high school fair that is held annually in late September.

Today’s eight specialized high schools represent a wide variety of learning environments, teaching philosophies, course offerings, and extracurricular activities. It’s important to do your homework, understand which qualities are important to you and your family, and decide which of these institutions will be a good fit.

The specialized testing schools include:

Note that LaGuardia High School of Music & Arts and Performing Arts is not included in this list because admission is determined by audition and a review of your academic record, but not by your score on the SHSAT.

How Do I Get Ready for the SHSAT?

Registration

New York City residents who are either current eighth-graders or first-time ninth-graders are eligible to sit for the fall test. Registration is simple and takes place at your school; just let your guidance counselor know in September that you want to take the SHSAT, and she will sign you up.

Once you’re registered through your school counselor, she will issue you a test ticket with your assigned testing date just before its administration (your test site is based on where you attend school). On this ticket, you will be asked to list which of the eight schools you want to apply to and what your order of preference is. On the day of the test, you’ll copy these choices from the test ticket onto your answer sheet (schools will not see this ranking!).

To see test dates for 2015, you can visit the NYC DoE’s website.

Format

The test format is relatively simple: two-and-a-half hours long, two sections — one verbal and one math — all multiple-choice questions. The number of correct answers, which is your raw score, is converted into a 3-digit, composite score — typically ranging up to the high 700s. There are no penalties for wrong answers and no written portion of the test.

Preparation

Some students have been known to prepare for this test for months — sometimes even years. At the same, there are others who (though likely in the minority) spend minimal time with practice materials, deciding instead to take their chances that their innate test-taking abilities will earn them a spot.

Test preparation can take a number of forms, ranging from doing nothing, to reviewing the sample tests in the city’s specialized high schools handbook (released annually), to pursuing expensive tutoring. Make no mistake — this is a challenging, unique test with sections that are not commonly found on other tests. I recommend some type of preparation, and this suggestion applies even to top students who may do well on other standardized tests.

Practice Tests

Many families take advantage of multiple, free practice testing opportunities that are offered across the city by different organizations. Bear in mind that true, mock testing is done in simulated conditions, using similar timing, materials, class configuration, and proctoring as you’ll encounter with the actual test. During these practices sessions, you’ll be in an environment that closely mimics that of the actual test so that when you walk in on test day, the experience will be familiar.

Diagnostic Scores

Many test prep companies provide students with a composite SHSAT score as a diagnostic tool. This result is based on the number of correct responses a student gives (the raw score) which is converted to an overall 3-digit score. It’s important to note, however, that this is just an estimate. The conversion from raw to composite for the actual SHSAT is quite complex and not completed by the city until the test has been administered. While these estimates can help guide families and inform your preparation process, you should be careful about drawing conclusions about candidacy for particular schools.

How Does the Matching Process Work?

Unlike the matching process for other city high schools, determining who will be offered admission to these elite schools is actually fairly straightforward and based on three factors only: number of available openings, your score on the SHSAT, and the demand for each school — that is, the choices of schools all students made on their answer sheets.

The matching algorithm sorts all scores citywide in order from highest to lowest. Working its way down the list, spots at the schools are then filled using these scores and students’ preferences until there are no more openings. In order to be offered a spot, you must both earn a qualifying score for a particular school and list this choice above others on your list.

Qualifying Scores

As a general rule, the city does not release qualifying scores for each of the schools after the test administration; that said, the lowest qualifying score tends to be close to 470 and the highest possible results run in the high 700s.

A Word of Caution

I recommend being cautious when interpreting so-called unofficial ‘cutoff scores’ that are published based on anecdotal information. In reality, they don’t help your test prep, and you’ll want to include as many schools as you are willing to consider on your answer sheet — regardless of your anticipated score. I have seen students omit particular schools that they wanted to attend — or list them as a lower preference — only to receive a qualifying score for that school. If you don’t list it at all or list it below another school for which you qualify, you can’t get an offer there.

When Do I Receive Admissions Offers?

Admissions notifications arrive in March, at the same time as students learn the results from the regular high school application process — commonly known as ‘Round 1’. A student can only receive one offer to a specialized testing school (as well as possible additional offers to one or more studios at LaGuardia High School, the lone specialized arts high school). There are no waitlists and no changes for an offer at one of these eight schools; you have to take or leave whatever you get. This is why making the right choices — in the right order — on the answer sheet is so critical.

Students who receive an offer to one of the specialized testing schools will usually also receive one “match” from the regular high school application. You can then choose between the two.

At the same time, you will also receive the score you earned on the test, whether or not you received an offer from one of the specialized high schools. In any given year, there are only a few thousand admissions offers made to the specialized testing schools, from among the tens of thousands of students who take the exam.

Increasing Your Odds

Finally, it is critical to understand that if you truly want to maximize the number of public school options available, you must take the regular public high school application very seriously. It seems obvious to point out, but admission to a specialized high school is extremely competitive. I have seen lots of families put all of their proverbial eggs in one basket and bank solely on the SHSAT, only to be left without a high school match when their child didn’t earn a high enough score on the exam. Having said that, some families are choosing only between the specialized high schools and a selective private school; in this case, you may be in a position to take more of a risk securing a public school option.

My Final Thoughts

Many families I meet with are shocked when they learn that the specialized high schools pay no attention to grades, attendance, teacher recommendations, or any other criterion for entry. Relying on a single measure — a standardized test — has sparked a public debate about whether these schools should include additional means of evaluating applicants.

Some argue that the SHSAT does not truly assess a student’s aptitude, while others claim that the exam is biased. Moreover, many critics say that it favors families who can afford pricey test prep. Of course, there are individuals who stand by the opinion that, unlike for many other schools, such an admissions practice is one of the last remaining, true meritocracies, rewarding only those who perform best on the test — period.

Undoubtedly, this discussion will persist into the foreseeable future, but for now at least, the SHSAT is the sole means of gaining admission to these high schools. Researching their offerings, speaking with a knowledgeable professional to get an in-depth understanding of the NYC high school admissions process, and preparing thoroughly for the exam will set you on the best path towards a rewarding experience at your next school.

Based in New York, Noodle has many resources about NYC high schools. You can find additional advice from admissions advisor Maurice Frumkin and other community experts.