SSHST and the Bathwater

Aug 29, 2018 by

In an article titled “How Do I Put This? Testing Is Far From Perfect”, published last week in the New York Times, the author, who is a Harvard Law School graduate, persuasively argues in support of Mayor DeBlasio’s desired abolition of the SSHST,- the standardized test currently used as the sole criterion for acceptance into the City’s so-called elite high schools.

He dismantles the view that the test is a dependable measure of academic merit, and with surgical precision, analyzes why the officially “correct” answer may not be the best answer. Logically and with good-humored tone, he also suggests that the more sensitive to the ambiguities of language a test taker may be, the greater the likelihood they will be able to justify an alternative, superior but unsanctioned answer.

Mayor DeBlasio calls the total reliability on the SSHST “insane”. The author’s tone is more restrained and clinical but is essentially just as sweeping.

But high on the scale of preposterous notions is the replacement of the SSHST with an admissions standard based on grades and class rank.

Who’s fooling whom?  This may be a fairer option, but it is no less fallible. It is more even-handed in one way but no less arbitrary in another.
Teachers vary enormously in their grading standards and barometers. For the identical work, a student could get a “90” from one teacher and a “75” from another, even within the same school. And an “A” student in one school might be a “C” in another.  Are we marking candidates on their productivity relative to each other or are we comparing other factors, such as educational opportunity?

Volunteerism and personal references can help provide a complete portrait of an applicant, but that is generally not sufficiently revelatory.
Anyone can sign up for some worthy community activities and give a few acquaintances an incentive to write them glowing referrals, which can penalize the friendless introvert and should be, in any case, irrelevant.

The specialized high school process definitely clamors for revision. But whatever finally pans out, let’s hope and insist that equity is achieved without “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”.

Ron Isaac

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