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The Middle School Effect
Dr. Shahid Sheikh
The academic quality of a middle school can have far-reaching impact on students’ future educational opportunities and ultimately their careers. In evaluating a New York City middle school, parents should focus on at least two major factors: its Regents offerings and its number of eighth graders accepted into New York City Specialized High Schools.
The race for admissions to elite universities begins in middle school. Most top-notch universities require the following--some combination depending on the field of study-- math and science SAT subject tests from their incoming freshmen: Math I, Math II, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. They expect high school students to meet these requirements by the end of their junior year for serious admissions consideration and scholarships.
Top-tier middle schools offer the following Regents to their eighth graders: Living Environment, Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2/Trigonometry, U.S. History, Global History and Geography Regent and Language Proficiency exam (after three years of study). Students who take these courses and respective Regents in middle school are ready to meet the admissions requirements of top research universities and the Ivy Leagues by their junior year in high school. In addition, this rigorous coursework at the middle school tends to enhance their academic standings especially when they achieve admissions into the Specialized High Schools as well as score high on standardized tests such as PSAT, SAT, and SAT II. Many top high schools, such as Staten Island Technical High School, require their 9th graders to take practice PSAT in October.
New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math (NEST+m) students, for instance, are highly prepared for high school and college level courses; therefore, it should come as no surprise that most NEST students are accepted into the best high schools in New York City. Its students at Stuyvesant, based on the Stuyvesant math placement test, take pre-Calculus and Physics in their freshman year in addition to being offered Honor Mathematics, Math Team, Math Research, Computer Science, Advanced Placement, and other college level courses. Freshmen placed on Math Team compete in approximately 20 competitions. Math Team training provides invaluable skills in problem solving that can help in their “regular” math classes. Freshmen are also offered inquiry based Math Research Program in which students use Stuyvesant’s extensive math research library along with the Internet to produce math research projects. The class culminates with the submission of an independent research project, written under the guidance of the Math Research Instructor(s). Very advanced students can take Calculus and pre-Calculus during their junior year. In this case, students learn certain pre-Calculus topics earlier in the year than when they are required for Calculus. Additionally, students who double up on Calculus and pre-Calculus must reach certain requirements to be considered, such as, having 94% average for mathematics and 90-92 percent overall average. All these extra preparations and guidance greatly benefit students when they take standardized tests like SAT and SAT II.
Another school, for example, IS 7 in Staten Island, New York, offers Algebra 1 Regents, Living Environment Regents, and U.S. History Regents only to selected students, and a high number of these top students are usually accepted into Specialized High Schools.
Second-tier middle schools offer Algebra 1 Regents, U.S. History Regents, and Earth Science Regents. For example, IS 72 in Staten Island, New York, only offers these Regents to its honor students. Very few students from these schools qualify for Specialized High Schools. Students from these schools start high school taking Living Environment Regents. It is not clear how a high school student who takes Earth Science and Algebra I in the eighth grade will meet the Ivy Leagues’ entrance requirements by his/her junior year.
Students are required to study two years of physics, chemistry, and biology before taking AP exams and SAT subject tests. Most competitive high school guidance counselors will not schedule a freshman to take more than one AP science course per year. Additionally, some schools such as Stuyvesant High School require their students to maintain at least a 90% average in the pre-requisite subject class before consideration for the AP class. On the other hand, Staten Island Technical High school admits its students into AP courses if they have a 100+ average (103 is the median average at Staten Island Tech.). Simply put, students from second-tier middle schools are at least one year behind in science compared to their peers from top-tier schools. Only a few students from these schools qualify for Ivy League universities. Top middle school students from these high schools attend flagship state research universities and second tier small private universities.
Third-tier middle schools do not offer any Regents. Their students are in the worst academic shape: they enter local high schools with considerable academic deficiencies and spend many years updating their academic knowledge and skills. Most of these students have not even heard of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), let alone prepared for it. They start high schools with Earth Science Regents and Algebra 1 Regents. They are two years behind in science and a year behind in math classes and do not have much chance of taking more challenging courses later on in high school. Moreover, they will most likely graduate without taking Calculus. After graduation, top performers from these schools usually attend four-year local colleges and the rest either attend two-year community colleges or simply discontinue their formal education.
In sum, it is better that your child attends a top-tier middle school where he/she accomplishes a rigorous coursework. This early preparation will help him/her get admission in a high quality high school. Moreover, it will prepare him/her for advanced courses early in high school to meet the academic admissions criteria as well as scholarship eligibility of the top-tier universities and the Ivy League’s by the end of their junior year.