The most straightforward of the selective schools to apply to are the Specialized Public High Schools. As I write this, there are nine Specialized High Schools that base admissions on the SHSAT. Three of them are the old, storied behemoths: Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science. Six more are newer and (mostly) smaller: The Brooklyn Latin School, The High School for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at City College, The High School for American Studies at Lehman College, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, and Staten Island Technical High School. There are only two considerations for admission to each of theses schools: New York City residency and SHSAT scores.
Applying is simple, but getting in is hard. The SHSAT is a 2 ½ hours long, multiple choice test with a math section and an English section. The math section bears a distinct resemblance to the math section of the SAT. Granted, it only assumes an introductory knowledge of algebra, but the ďflavorĒ is the same. The English section of the test is more unusual. In addition to challenging (but run-of-the-mill) reading comprehension passages and questions, there are also logical reasoning questions and scrambled paragraphs that students must unscramble. As far as I know, the scrambled paragraphs are unique among standardized tests.
Not surprisingly, the best way to prepare for this test is to be a good student. Kids who get in are virtually always kids who pay attention in class, do their homework thoughtfully, and study. Reading far beyond school assignments is also a significant predictor of success. No matter what anyone may tell you, no prep course, no prep materials, and no tutor can fully compensate if these factors are not already in place. (Beyond which, a student who is not academically inclined and interested in working hard is unlikely to be happy in a specialized high school, even if he or she did manage to get accepted.) Unfortunately, being a good student is not enough. Itís an unfair, even tragic fact that many middle schools are not rigorous enough to give their students a fair shot at doing well on the SHSAT. I will address some long-term strategies for students going to sub-standard middle schools at the end of this article. If your child is already doing all of the right things, and going to a rigorous school, there are a number of steps you can take to further improve your childís chances of doing well on the SHSAT.
Your child can:
ē Study on his or her own, using commercially available prep books;
ē Take a prep class;
ē Study with a tutor;
ē Or, a student can do some combination of the above.
Each one of these study methods has its pros and cons. I recommend that parents and children look at the options together, and make decisions about how to prepare as a family.
Independent study is the cheapest way to prepare, by an enormous margin. All that is needed is a few test prep books- theyíre not expensive and they can even be borrowed for free from a library. For highly motivated students who have a strong academic foundation, this can be an effective way to study. Iíd recommend selecting one prep book (Barronís is my favorite) and working through it, from beginning to end. Youíll be able to gauge your progress and decide whether you are on track to meet your goals. Ideally, you would start this process in the spring or early summer before the test so that you have plenty of time and can add in other study methods if they are indicated. When self-guided study is effective, itís wonderful how students can really take full ownership of their success.
Taking a group class to prepare for the SHSAT is generally my least favorite option. There are many places you can go to take a group class, and some are obviously better than others. Unfortunately, the big players donít seem to get very good results and they do seem to take a big chunk out of their studentsí quality of life. Sitting through wearisome 3-hour classes with a bunch of other kids, slogging through huge piles of homework, and getting little personal attention is drill and kill in the worst sense. Itís mind-numbing and not particularly educational. Itís cheaper than private tutoring, but I would call most group classes a false economy.
On the other hand, there are a few group classes that are actually quite good. You should look for small groups (no more than 8 students per teacher) and individual classes that are a reasonable length (perhaps 1.5 hours). The teachers should be experienced and should be able to produce excellent references. Homework and practice tests should obviously be part of the program, but you should not feel that a class takes over your childís life or your familyís life.
For most students, private tutoring will be the most effective option. The individual attention makes a big difference when working on challenging and potentially tedious material. Itís more efficient, because a good tutor focuses on exactly what an individual student needs and itís easier to remain motivated when accountability is provided by one-on-one lessons. Unfortunately, tutoring can be quite expensive. Rates vary widely, but $85-$150 per hour is the general range you can expect to pay for an experienced, effective tutor. Tutoring is so expensive largely because tutors must spend a great deal of time traveling between appointments and you are paying for their travel and lesson planning time as well as the time they actually spend with your child.
If one-on-one tutoring is prohibitively expensive for you but would otherwise be your first choice, there are a few strategies you can try to lower your rate. If you know another family that lives very near to you who also wants tutoring, you might consider looking for a tutor together. If you can arrange to have lessons back-to-back, with only 5 minutes or so of transportation time in between, youíll very likely be able to arrange a discount. Likewise, semi-private lessons (with two or perhaps three students and one tutor) and be much more affordable and still very effective. Most tutors donít advertise semi-private lessons, but if you ask, youíll find that many tutors are amenable.
A note on what to do if your middle schooler goes to an academically weak school:
If your child is stuck in a school that leaves a lot to be desired, you can do several things to ameliorate the situation. Of course, switching to a better school is an ideal option, but that is not always possible. Assuming that switching schools isnít realistic, I strongly recommend that you make sure that your child is getting supplemental enrichment. Exactly what you do will obviously depending on your budget, time constraints, and interests, but you should start as soon after realizing that there is a problem at school as possible. The list that follows is not exhaustive, but it will give you a place to start.
ē Read. No matter where your child goes to school, itís important for him or her to read independently. This becomes extra-important if the school is poor. For middle schoolers, a book a week is a reasonable rule of thumb. If your child doesnít like to read, read together. Let your child choose his or her own books, and donít be judgmental about them (unless you feel a particular book is morally unacceptable).
ē Do math. Do actual math, not just test prep materials. If school math is severely lacking, consider working through a curriculum or enrichment materials at home. I very much like all of Edward Zaccaroís books- they are challenging and thought provoking, with good explanations for home study.
ē Go to cultural events. Museums, theater, concerts, walking tours, poetry slams, and book readings can all be fun, cheap, and enriching. They are opportunities for exposure to literature, history, art, and science, all of which add to the store of background knowledge which is critically important for effective reading comprehension.
ē Take up a hobby. There are a variety of hobbies that provide opportunities to use math and reading in meaningful, concrete ways. Consider robotics, model railroading, building radios, or working in a community garden. You may want to look into joining a club where you and your child can meet more experienced hobbyists and become part of a community.
ē Take classes. It is sometimes possible to take classes that will help fill in the gaps that a weak formal education can leave. Be careful though, that these classes are thought provoking and useful rather than just a series of drills.
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Article Added on Monday, May 25, 2009
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