Monday, 01 December 2014 13:29

Keep exam, say specialized high school alums

Offer more test prep. Give all 7th-graders a practice exam and allow 8th- and 9th-grade test-takers more time to complete the competitive specialized high school exam known as the SHSAT. Those are among the proposals that a coalition of graduates of the city's eight specialized high schools that use the SHSAT sent this week to City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. With the City Council slated to take up the issue of the future of the exam on Dec. 11, alumni signing the letter oppose any move to abandon the exam, the sole determinant of which students get into Stuyvesant and the other exam-based specialized high schools.

The alumni echo calls for more racial diversity at the schools, which have few black and Latino students, but say abandoning the test is not the solution. Instead, the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations note that 15 percent of middle schools account for 85 percent of students admitted to specialized high schools and call for "correcting unequal educational opportunities that exist in the elementary and middle schools."

"Nobody wants to hear the real problem is the educational system," Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation and one of the signers of the letter, said in an interview. People are "fooling themselves," he said, if they believe they can maintain the rigor of the specialized schools while they "wave a magic wand and overlook the fact that the educational system in New York City is as bad as it is for large numbers of kids."

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Busy is the family that has a 5th- and 8th-grader: middle school and high school applications are both due on the same day, Dec. 2!

If you are a parent of a 5th-grader, this may be your first experence with school choice. Options and selection methods vary greatly from district to district. Some districts have mostly zoned schools, others have none and some have a combination. It can be hard for families to figure out.

The biggest change this year for some Brooklyn and Queens districts, is that schools can no longer accept students solely on the basis of their state test scores. Top schools—such as Christa McAuliffe in Bay Ridge or The Academy at PS 122 in Astoria—must now consider other factors such as attendance, lateness and report card grades in addition to test scores. Selective programs for high achievers in other areas—such as Districts 2 and 3 in Manhattan, or District 15 in Brooklyn—will maintain the same "screened" application process, that may include interviews and auditions in addition to test scores and report cards.

If you're confused, the Department of Education has laid out some of the changes on its middle school page, listing the new admissions policies (PDF) for middle schools that previously admitted students by test scores. But for particulars, you may want to contact the school.

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High school applications are due on Tuesday, Dec. 2. Have you made your list yet?

If you are still undecided where to apply, or how to rank your 12 choices, we've got last minute tips for you. 

We have been visiting high schools all fall, updating our reviews and adding new slideshows. Read our school profiles and check the comments section too. Wondering what other students and parents, and even teachers, think of the school? Our InsideStats section tells you that.

If you're looking for a school with a specific theme, or one that's close to home, check out our new high school search on your desktop or mobile device. You can search by borough, subway line, middle school grades or keyword, sifting through hundreds of high schools to find the best matches.

Here are our suggestions of what to consider as you apply.

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On Monday the Department of Education released new School Quality Reports for every city school, fulfilling its promise to abandon the labeling of each school with a single letter grade. For parents who appreciated this simple shorthand when seeking out the best school for their children, this new system may appear daunting. But for anyone who ever wondered how those grades were calculated or why some fluctuated wildly when all appeared stable on the ground, the new system will be a breath of fresh air.

The new School Quality Reports are comprised of two separate documents, both intended to make the existing school data more transparent to parents and educators alike. The School Quality Snapshot is a short and straightforward tool intended for parents. Much like InsideStats on Insideschools' profile pages, it seeks to present the most relevant information for parents in a way that is easy to read and understand. On this document, you won't see any statistical analyses or weighted comparisons, only the raw test scores, graduation rates and school survey results that matter to parents most.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday announced his strategy to support the city's schools that are "most in need of help." In conjunction with some additional coaching, oversight and a longer school day, 94 "Renewal Schools" identified for their poor test scores, graduation rates, and School Quality Reviews will receive $150 million to become "Community Schools" that provide additional programs and social services to meet the needs of the "whole child, whole school, whole community."

Yesterday's announcement doubles down on de Blasio's campaign promise to establish 100 new community schools by the end of his first term. This summer, he repurposed state funds dedicated to attendance improvement and dropout prevention into a competitive grant to fund 45 new community schools. When those schools (to be announced soon) and the additional 94 Renewal Schools are underway, the number will far surpass de Blasio's goal and will establish New York City as the largest system of community schools in the nation.

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The Brooklyn School of Inquiry accepted just two percent of the kids applying to its sixth-grade class last year. That makes it the most competitive middle school in the city, according to data obtained by DNAinfo New York.

The gifted and talented K-8 school in Bensonhurst — known for progressive teachers who eschew textbooks in favor of hands-on experiences — received more than 3,100 applications for just 66 spots in its sixth-grade class last fall. Nearly all of those spots went to kids who were already attending the school's fifth grade.

"It's a small school," principal Donna Taylor said of the popularity of BSI's sixth grade. "The students have the attention that, quite frankly, kids at that age need."

The Brooklyn School of Inquiry is not the only public middle school that rejects far more applicants than it accepts. 

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If you haven't gotten your ticket for this weekend's specialized high school exam, don't panic. You'll be able to sit for the test without it, according to the Department of Education. The DOE posted a notice on its website saying that all scheduled students will be "welcomed and tested" even without a ticket. It also posted a list of test locations and times (pdf) for every middle school.

This week, some schools reported they had trouble printing tickets and others said they didn't get the tickets at all.

At Mark Twain middle school, it took the staff a day and a half to print out 350 tickets for its 8th-graders because of a glitch in the system, said Parent Coordinator Delgermaa Ganbaatar. "It has been very stressful. The system couldn't handle all the requests at once." The school finished printing at noon Friday, she said, and got them into the hands of students before they went home. Mark Twain sends more students annually to Stuyvesant High School than any other middle school.

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The Specialized High School Admissions Test that thousands of 8th-graders will take this weekend has long been a multiple-choice exam scored by a machine. But there are indications that the new exam students will take starting in in 2016 might have an essay component.

Last month, the city issued a Request for Proposals for a new SHSAT, which is the sole determinant of whether a student gets into one of the eight academically elite high schools. The current contract with Pearson runs out in 2016 so the city must put the test out for bids and sign a new contract with someone to create a test for fall 2016 and beyond.

The new RFP tells prospective bidders that including hand-scored "constructed response and/or essay response" questions would be "desired but not required." If the test does have essays, the RFP goes on to say, the bid must include "information on the items themselves and on how and by whom the items would be scored."

Later on, the document refers again to "shorter written and/or essay responses," saying bidders may "optionally address" them.

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Thursday, 02 October 2014 10:14

Good riddance to A-F school grades!

Say goodbye to the controversial school grading system developed under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Starting this school year, parents will no longer be able to judge schools by their A to F rankings, which were designed to be a simple way to see whether their child's school was succeeding or failing.

Instead, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña wants parents to look beyond test scores to see what is actually happening inside their children's classrooms and promises the Department of Education will do the same. "Schools are not restaurants," quipped Fariña, "they have unique qualities that need to be captured in different ways."

Fariña announced the new plan for evaluating schools yesterday at PS 503/PS 506 in Sunset Park. She said that before the end of the calendar year, new School Quality Snapshots will be released for all schools and available online for parents to read. They will highlight key results from several different data sources the DOE already collects, including the annual school survey and the Quality Review conducted by experts who visit the school. While test scores will still be included, they will not be the sole focus, nor will they be used to penalize a school that does poorly.

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Tuesday, 30 September 2014 11:52

Not the usual suspects: Our middle school picks

Here's help for 5th-grade parents now in the throes of the hunt for middle school. Insideschools combed the city for good middle schools that are not among the usual favorites—those popular screened and highly competitive programs that everybody applies to. What we found are solid neighborhood and non-selective options in every borough. Overall, we were less concerned with a school’s test scores than with its tone and environment, and the quality of its instruction and leadership. Several on the list serve kids in grades 6–12. These schools seem to do a particularly good job with struggling and average students, and their leaders tend to not fret too much over middle school stats so long as they believe they are laying a foundation for higher achievement in the upper grades. Of course there are topnotch schools that are not on this list, but many of those are the schools that already receive many more applicants than they can accept!

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