The test preparation industry is scrambling to adapt to the new Specialized High School Admissions test

The test that determines admission to New York City's most prestigious public high schools is changing. Test preparation firms aren't far behind.
The test that determines admission to New York City’s most prestigious public high schools is changing. Test preparation firms aren’t far behind. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Bryan Thomas / Stringer

The loss of scrambled paragraphs is setting a certain subset of New York scrambling.

The city’s Department of Education put community groups and test-prep partners on notice last week, when it instructed principals to send the notification home in students’ backpacks: This year’s edition of the exam that solely determines entrance to NYC’s eight specialized high schools will undergo the broadest revisions in about two decades — including the end of those terrible scrambled paragraph problems, which students were forced to stare at in incomprehension while being told that, sure, there was a way to put them back in order.

Enter the test preppers. One of the most-established companies in the field, Kaplan Test Prep, jumped into motion.

Cailin Papszycki, director of Kaplan’s pre-college program in NYC, says its team of dozens of academics quickly got busy, absorbing the slim amount of information and new sample questions released by the DOE and rushing to write whole new questions. They are creating new strategies as well as revising Kaplan’s curricula, practice tests, and practice books.

Papszycki says Kaplan does general test prep for “thousands” of New Yorkers in every borough and will be using its 80 years of experience to be ready for the new test come fall.

Why all the fuss?

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has long been a subject of intense debate and political back and forth, given the traditional strength of the schools which include Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Tech, along with five more recent additions. They are often ranked among the best schools in the country, and like all public schools, admission is free. The test is the only barrier to entry.

Yet its results have often been questioned, given the relatively small percentage of minority students who gain entry to the schools. Some say the test is at least partially to blame for that, as those who can pay for expensive prep are often in better shape than those who can’t.

The format changes are “designed to make the test a little fairer,” says Will Mantell, a DOE spokesman. Changes include cutting a logic section and so-called “scrambled paragraph” questions, which are meant to make the subject matter being tested “more aligned” with classroom curriculum.

Some tutoring professionals say those knotty sections in particular are easier for those who prep.

“More than any other question,” says Matthew Brown, tutoring director at Brownstone Tutors of Manhattan and Brooklyn, those types in particular give students a hard time: “because they’d never seen anything like it.”

Such questions were far from the usual verbal and math questions typical for such tests. Some of the brain teasers were easy and some were hard, says Brown, but “they weren’t as hard to prep for as they could have been: the styles would repeat.”

Other changes include surprisingly thorny new “revising/editing” questions which test grammar, everyone’s favorite subject not to know, though perhaps it’s one of those things you remember when you’re still in school and then promptly forget.

There will also be a grid system to bubble in the answer for some math questions: students would answer 2+2=4 by writing in and bubbling the number 4 as opposed to choosing a multiple choice answer, for example.

Brown says something like this could encourage test takers to actually do the problem correctly, rather than working backward or taking shortcuts after glancing at the multiple choice options. (In full disclosure, this writer attended one of the specialized high schools, and was a big shortcut taker).

Under this logic, it could be that the new test to some extent rewards how well middle school students learn typical academic subjects in school, instead of test prep maneuvers.

This raises the possibility that those who go to better middle schools are better prepared for the test, another version of the test-prep inequality conundrum. Mantell, the DOE spokesman, says the agency is devoting resources both to improving middle school quality and widening the pipeline to the specialized schools.

Test prep firms are already preparing

The test prep industry, naturally, doesn’t think the new test destroys its business model. Papszycki notes that Kaplan’s methods help students’ “build up their endurance” and “understand pacing,” both especially important now that the test will also be slightly longer.

Brown says Brownstone’s tutoring program specializes in one-on-one tutoring, which helps with test prep but also with some of the skills necessary in a classroom. And prepping can help alleviate students’ “apprehension” of tests.

The test can be particularly stressful for middle schoolers, says Brown, “because everything rests on this one day.” Many students feel over-examined in regular schooling, but counterintuitively, the symptom to unhappiness over tests could be administering them on a more regular basis, says Brown.

Once the scramble of prep is done, it will be left to the next few years’ results to determine whether the new test actually does level the playing field, or if the test prep industry just adapts along with it.