Nearly 30,000 eighth graders take the test yearly. Credit: Ben Mullins

Entry to New York City’s eight specialized high schools – Stuyvesant HS, Brooklyn Tech HS, Bronx Science HS, Staten Island Tech HS, HS for Math, Science and Engineering, HS of American Studies, Brooklyn Latin HS and Queens HS for the Sciences – is based exclusively on a student’s Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) score. 

Every year, nearly 30,000 eighth graders sit for this exam, and about 5,000 are offered a seat at one of their ranked choices. 

When my African American husband entered the freshman class of Stuyvesant, NYC’s most difficult to get into specialized high school, in 1981, there were more than 200 Black students enrolled. A few miles away, at Brooklyn Tech, two-thirds of the students were Black and Latino. In 2017, when our older son graduated from Stuy, and 2018, when our younger one started, the number of Black students there was under 40.

These stats have been perplexing educational equity pundits since the end of the previous century. Even The New York Times was forced to scratch their heads in confusion and write that “decades ago, when crime and socioeconomic conditions were far graver than they are today, Black and Latino teenagers passed the examination in great numbers.”

Much of the blame has been placed on NYC cutting Gifted and Talented elementary school programs and Honors middle school programs, especially in minority neighborhoods – in the name of equity.

Former mayor Bill de Blasio’s solution was first to try and get rid of the SHSAT altogether, and when that failed, to blame extensive (and expensive) test prep, which he called “cheating” – despite being unable to remember whether his own son “cheated” in such a manner in order to get into Brooklyn Tech.

De Blasio’s subsequent solution was ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ Prior to leaving office, he established the DREAM program for seventh graders who meet income, residency, and eligibility requirements to receive nine months of free test prep for the SHSAT.

When I asked Press Secretary Nathaniel Styer to tell me how many DREAM students receive SHSAT offers historically, including during the 2024 admissions cycle, he replied, “I think you’ll have to FOIL for that.”

In order to find out how many minority and low-income public school students were helped by DREAM, I was advised to file a Freedom of Information Law Request. NYC is refusing to release those numbers to the public, unless specific individuals formally ask for them.

Does that suggest those numbers are… good?

In one way, Mayor de Blasio was not wrong. Because, despite his Department of Education’s official website trilling for years that, to prepare for the SHSAT, “one of the most helpful things you can do is keep up with your schoolwork,” the material on the test is not taught in a standard NYC public school curriculum.

Which means families have three choices:

  • They can send their children to those private schools which are regularly several years ahead of the public school curriculum.
  • They can try to get their children into one of the citywide G&T schools which accelerate the standard NYC public school curriculum by one year, or perhaps Hunter College Elementary, the non-public, publicly funded school for the gifted (though they have their own high school).
  • They can get outside tutoring to learn the material they need to know and strategies for taking the test (many private schools and citywide G&T graduates still require test taking guidance even if they’ve mastered the material).
Your teen can take advantage of free or low-cost options to prep for the test. Credit: Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu

Private schools charge anywhere from $30,000 to $65,000 for tuition per year (less for parochial schools). Citywide G&T schools only accept about 300 students total out of the nearly 15,000 kids that NYC’s own screening system suggests would benefit from such a program, and outside tutoring can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 dollars (ranging from $30 to $300 dollars an hour for multi-hour sessions that could last for over a year).

This is most definitely a system that benefits the well-off. 

Fortunately, there are also free and low-cost (under $1,000) options which prepare students for the SHSAT – and are willing to share their results.

In 2019, as a counter-argument to de Blasio’s assertion that the only way to level the playing field for low-income and minority students was to scrap the SHSAT altogether, ex-Time Warner chief Richard Parsons and Estee Lauder heir and Bronx High School of Science alum Ronald Lauder announced that they would personally fund over a million dollars worth of test prep for needy students, starting with an initial cohort of 210.

In 2020, they revealed that of the 197 eighth graders who enrolled, 31 received an offer of admission to one of the eight specialized schools. 

As of 2024, however, the website for their organization, Educational Equity NYC, was no longer functioning, and emails to their representatives about its future went unanswered.

Free programs

But, hey, who needs billionaires when you’ve got dedicated alumni? Stuy Prep is a free tutoring program funded by the Stuyvesant Alumni Association which offers virtual and in-person instruction.

“Students have to write an essay and qualify under a low-income bracket,” explained Frances Kweller, owner of Kweller Prep, one of the DOE licensed providers hired to lead these lessons. “Half of our group got offers last year.”

More tips from Kweller are available in this video.

Another option available is Aspire Outreach, a student-driven program featuring mentors from Brooklyn Tech, Townsend Harris, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant.

“We started a free SHSAT prep in Brooklyn and in Queens.” Akzel Davila, junior executive of the Brooklyn Tech Branch of Aspire, confided that, “I never had any mentors or prep for the rigorous SHSAT and had to rely on teaching myself through Khan Academy and Youtube lessons. For reasons similar to my own, we started a program to provide every kid a mentor to guide them through the SHSAT, high school admissions, and beyond. What makes our program unique is the bond we share with our students. As high schoolers, we offer a new yet relatable perspective that builds trust between our small group of teachers and our kids. Students are selected on a first come, first served basis and all students not selected are placed on our waitlist and will be contacted for future programs or if a seat becomes available.”

In addition, classes exclusively for African-American and Latina girls starting seventh grade in September 2024 are available through Helicon Inc.

Low-cost programs

Inspired by her own journey from a single-parent immigrant home to Bronx Science HS to Duke University, Admissions Squad founder Tai Abrams offers a $750 SHSAT Summer and Fall Boot Camp for 100 students, with multiple applicants receiving a sliding scale discount and some even qualifying for a full scholarship. 

“At AdmissionSquad, we believe in the power of potential. That’s why we select students based on merit and dedication, offering them a chance to unlock doors they never thought possible,” says Abrams.

Last admissions cycle, of the 75 eighth graders who participated, 30 received an SHSAT school offer.

You can get more Admission Squad tips here.

For those wanting to study on their own schedule, TestPrepSHSAT boasts a platform with practice questions for $25 a year, or $175 a month with a virtual tutor. 

And if you’d like to go it alone, here is a round-up of which test-prep books are worth your while. 

Finally, when writing this post, I put out a call on social media for folks’ favorite free and low-cost SHSAT prep resources. I was bombarded with companies promoting their own services, all of whom were well above the under $1,000 threshold I’d set to qualify as low-cost.

However, when I engaged with the companies’ owners, most of them admitted that, yes, they do offer some form of financial aid – they just don’t advertise it widely. For example, merit scholarships might only be available for current clients, or it might be a sibling discount, or a lower-cost college student tutor versus a licensed teacher. Others offer free mock testing or a one-time-only informational webinar.

The lesson to be drawn here is, if you find a company or tutor you particularly like, but their fees are out of your price range, it never hurts to ask. Just because they don’t tout lower-cost opportunities, doesn’t mean they aren’t negotiable. 

Your Epicenter NYC guide to all high school admissions at:

YouTube video

Do you have a favorite free or low-cost SHSAT prep program? Please share in the comments!

To read more of our educational stories, visit our school section.

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