You Asked We Answered

Why do some New York City schools get to choose their students? Here’s the case for and against ‘screening.’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Should high-achieving students attend one set of schools and everyone else another?

The question gets at a longstanding debate in education over sorting students by ability into separate classrooms or schools: Does it benefit the top students by providing them a more rigorous curriculum than is possible in a mixed-ability setting, or does it widen racial achievement gaps and leave lower-achieving students in less demanding classrooms with fewer resources?

Some New York City schools “track” advanced students into separate gifted-and-talented programs or honor courses. But some whole schools are also designed for high-achievers: Roughly a quarter of the city’s middle schools and a third of high schools screen applicants based on their grades, test scores, artistic talents and other criteria. Some of the city’s most renowned high schools — the elite “specialized” schools that include Stuyvesant and Bronx Science — only admit the top scorers on an entrance exam.

This school-wide sorting system has come under fresh scrutiny lately as city officials rethink admissions policies in an effort to get schools to enroll more diverse populations. But even as critics say that selective schools worsen segregation and leave low-achieving students in low-performing schools, supporters — including many parents — say that advanced students learn best alongside similarly skilled classmates.

This debate flared up recently at a Chalkbeat event focused on high-school admissions. During the event and in follow-up questions submitted by readers, many people asked: Why do some city schools get to select their students? And are there alternatives to the current system?

To find the answers, Chalkbeat studied the research, consulted experts, and spoke with parents. Here’s what we found:

What’s the case for screened schools?

When Sharon Kaplan was in school, it “wasn’t cool to be smart,” she said. There wasn’t enough interest in advanced history to justify a class, so she took basic economics instead, where she learned to write checks.

When Kaplan had children of her own, she was determined to send them to selective schools where their classmates would be as eager to learn as them.

“Having other kids in the class who are similarly engaged really raises the level of learning that’s available to them,” said Kaplan, who has one child at Stuyvesant and another who attended the High School for American Studies.

Some, like Kaplan, argue it’s easier to teach and learn when students are sorted by ability. How much you learn has a lot to do with who your classmates are, many parents say. And some evidence supports them: For instance, researchers found that when hurricane evacuees arrived in Houston, low-achieving students who entered the schools negatively impacted high-achieving students’ learning, while high-performing newcomers boosted their performance.

At the same time, teachers may have an easier time when their students aren’t at widely different skill levels. And selective schools may be able to offer more advanced classes, since they have enough high-performing students to fill the seats.

There’s great demand for selective schools. Popular screened schools like Manhattan Hunter Science, Millennium, and Manhattan Village Academy each had thousands of students list them as one of their 12 high school choices, despite having less than 200 openings each. Across the city, the demand for seats at selective schools far outstrips the supply.

Gifted students can fall through the cracks. Under the recently replaced No Child Left Behind law, schools were under pressure to lift up students just below grade level. As a result of that intense focus on struggling students, their above-average peers have often got short shrift.

Sorting by ability may benefit high-achieving kids. There is limited research on the impact of selective schools. But the research on sorting students into separate classes by ability, called academic tracking, has found mixed results for high-achieving students.

One meta-analysis found that classroom-level sorting harms low-achievers’ performance but has no effect on high-achievers. Other research, however, has found benefits for those students. One study found that high-achieving black and Hispanic fourth-graders saw their math and reading scores rise when they were placed in gifted classes; another found that states with larger shares of eighth-graders in high-track math classes also have larger shares of students earning top scores on Advanced Placement exams in high school.

“The research is very clear that ability tracking helps high-achievers,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a proponent of tracking.

It’s a way to keep middle-class families in the public school system. Finally, there’s a more practical reason to advocate for screening, said Samuel Abrams, a researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Selective schools are a way to keep middle-class families worried about the quality of the average public school from opting into private school or decamping to the suburbs. City leaders are “fundamentally concerned about white flight, middle-class flight,” Abrams said; elite selective schools are one way to keep more affluent families — along with their time and resources — invested in the public-school system.

What’s the case against screened schools?

Tanesha Grant’s daughter longed to attend LaGuardia High School, the celebrated — and highly selective  visual and performing arts school in Manhattan. But she didn’t get in.

Afterwards, she felt like a failure, Grant said. Now in ninth-grade at Urban Assembly School for Performing Arts, her daughter sees a therapist to work through the rejection.

“What are we putting them under immense pressure for?” Grant said. “The only point that I see is that it puts kids at a disadvantage and it separates kids into groups. The system makes the children unequal.”

Screening contributes to racial and socioeconomic segregation. The city’s eight most selective schools, which base admissions entirely on the results of an entrance exam, are disproportionately white and Asian. Only 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students, even though they represent about 70 percent of city students. A similar trend holds for the larger number of high schools that use a variety of criteria to screen applicants, though the racial disparities are less extreme, according to a Measure for America analysis produced for the New York Times.

A number of factors contribute to the racial imbalance — from the quality of the elementary and middle school that students attend to their parents’ ability to help them navigate the selective-admissions process. Some critics argue that the very act of admissions screening screening favors white and affluent students and disadvantages low-income students of color. Among the critics is Jeannie Oakes, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a prominent opponent of tracking.

When it comes to sorting students by ability, she said, it’s hard to imagine “that our deep racism and classism in this society could ever be overcome by some sort of fair selection process.”

Sorting can hurt low-achieving students. A body of research shows that lower-achieving students fare worse when separated from their high-achieving peers. A 1999 report summarizing tracking research concluded that “low-track classes are typically characterized by an exclusive focus on basic skills, low expectations, and the least-qualified teachers.”

In a sense, New York City’s system of selective schools amounts to tracking at the school — rather than classroom — level. The most popular selective high schools drain off the highest-performing students, leaving a large portion of schools with few, if any, students who had passed the state exams in eighth grade. Those schools can become the equivalent of “low-track” classes.

It’s unclear whether high-achieving students are helped. Several recent studies call into question the benefits of attending a selective school. Researchers found that, in Chicago, students who attended selective schools did not benefit academically compared to students with otherwise similar backgrounds who attended non-selective schools. Another study showed that students who just missed the cutoff to get into one of New York City’s entrance-exam schools were no less likely to attend or complete college than those who did get in.

What are the alternatives?

Eliminate or reduce schools that base admissions on academic achievement. Some critics say academic sorting, segregation, and inequality are inseparable — so screening should be banned completely. Others say there should just be fewer selective schools. Officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration have said they don’t plan to open any new screened schools — but they haven’t agreed to get rid of existing ones.

Allow schools to screen, but tweak the admissions system to promote diversity. It’s possible for some high schools to remain selective but also become more diverse, advocates say — if the city changes the way it matches students with schools. The city’s admissions algorithm, which takes in students’ high school choices and spits out matches, could be tweaked to factor in information such as parents’ education level or students’ ability to speak English fluently, advocates say. That would be a way to ensure that privileged and needy students are spread more evenly across schools — including those that screen applicants.

“The entire trajectory of the lives of hundreds of thousands of students could be improved for the better through a mathematical adjustment to the system,” said Elijah Fox, a member of IntegrateNYC4me, a student group that advocates for more diverse schools. “It’s inspiring.”  

Create a more consistent and transparent screening process. The city’s admissions system can resemble the Wild West with each selective middle and high school setting its own requirements. Often the criteria are hard to find and require students to attend school tours, take tests, or sit for interviews. Meanwhile, it’s nearly impossible for the education department to police whether schools are following their own rubrics or rules.

Standardizing the process could make it more fair. For instance, the city could create a common application for all selective schools.

Diversify exam schools. City officials have tried to increase the diversity at the specialized high schools by expanding programs like DREAM, which prepares students for the entrance exam. Others have proposed more radical solutions, like offering seats to the top students in every middle school. However, city officials have limited power to overhaul their admissions policies, which are written into state law. (Advocates argue that the law only mandates an entrance exam for the three original test-based specialized schools, but city officials say the law applies to all eight.) 

Deadlines

Chicago school applications are due midnight Friday. Here’s your last-minute cheat sheet.

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
At a fall open house, students at Benito Juarez Community Academy greeted visitors. As more students choose schools outside their neighborhood, schools have to work harder to impress families.

Families have until 11:59 pm Friday to apply to schools outside of their neighborhood through Chicago’s online portal, GoCPS.

On Thursday afternoon, wait times stretched nearly 10 minutes for callers to the Office of Access and Enrollment, which serves as a help-desk for GoCPS.

Families interested in options beyond their assigned neighborhood school must apply to attend magnet schools that draw students based on lottery, selective enrollment programs that require tests, and specialized programs such as dual-language or International Baccalaureate.

The application process is particularly fraught for students entering high school. Eighth-graders can choose from among 250 programs in nearly 150 high schools. Demand varies widely, with some schools receiving thousands of applications beyond what they can accommodate and others receiving too few.

While choosing a high school is serious business for students, their collective choices can become a do-or-die point for schools competing for a shrinking pool of students. The dozens of Chicago high schools labeled as under-enrolled risk falling into an unforgiving downward cycle. Schools losing enrollment also lose district revenue, which is doled out per student, and then they find it even more difficult to offer popular programs to appeal to applicants.  

Here’s some of our other coverage on the universal application system, which is now in its second year:

  • To see how many students applied to each high school last fall and compare it to the number of offers made this spring, click here.
  • To read how the race to impress students is leading high schools to behave more like small colleges, with swag bags, mariachi bands, and flashy brochures, click here.
  • To find our coverage of the first in-depth research report that evaluated the GoCPS system, click here. The system is mostly working as intended, according to an August report released by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The majority of high school students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools.
  • To follow-along in the discussion about high-quality neighborhood options, read this story about a recent meeting at Kelly High School, which we covered here.
  • To learn more about a controversial school inventory report made public in August that shows that fewer than half of Chicago students attend their designated neighborhood school, click here.
  • To look up the latest round of SAT scores by school, click here. To find our database of high school graduation rates, click here. 

 

Speaking Up

‘Smooth sailing’ or ‘left behind’: The student voices in a charged debate over NYC’s high school admissions

PHOTO: Julian Giordano/Teens Take Charge
Students at a Teens Take Charge forum with Nikole Hannah-Jones

At the same time Monday night that Manhattan parents were protesting proposed changes to how a few New York City high schools choose their students, teenagers in Brooklyn were giving voice to their frustrations with their educational experience, including the city’s entire approach to admissions.

Students with the advocacy group Teens Take Charge shared their struggles to navigate a sometimes labyrinthine high school application process. They described arriving late and ill-prepared to an undertaking that favors middle-class students — and, in some cases, realizing that they were beneficiaries of the system’s shortcomings.

Their call for change went far beyond the adjustment that the Manhattan parents were protesting — to do away with the admissions exam for specialized high schools and instead admit the top students from all middle schools. The proposal is aimed at increasing the number of black and Hispanic students at the sought-after high schools, and has generated debate, often bitter, since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his desire to change the process in June.

Most of the parents at the Manhattan meeting were white or Asian, while most of the Teens Take Charge students who spoke were black or Hispanic.

The contrast between the two events drew attention from Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who has written about segregation and her own family’s school choice experiences and who joined the teens in a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Public Library.

“I wish these two groups could have been in the same room, so that the progressive parents arguing their already advantaged kids deserve exclusive access to the best public high schools in the city could look the children they would deny this same privilege to in the eyes,” Hannah-Jones tweeted.

We amplified the Manhattan parents’ voices on Monday. Now, here are selections from the speeches of the Teens Take Charge students. Their comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“It is always us … who are left behind” — Brianna Marquez, a junior at New Heights Academy Charter School in Manhattan

‘Are you sure? You know there are many students who have been studying for this test since last year and the summer.’ These were the words from my guidance counselor that rang in my head because like many students, I had some sort of hope that I could have a seat in a specialized high school.…

That’s what disappointed me the most: not being told the whole truth … Not being told that because of my economic status, I can’t have any sort of hope for a quality education. Not being told that many students who look like me — Latinx and black — barely get accepted to a specialized high school. That at Stuyvesant, my dream school, only 3 percent of students during that school year were Latinx, and only 1 percent were black.

It is always us  — Latinx and black students — who are left behind because either many of us aren’t encouraged or are limited because we are underestimated in the work we can do. So you’re telling me that countless nights of doing homework at 1 a.m. because I didn’t have a proper desk to work at during my middle school years isn’t hard work?

A few times a week for a couple of weeks, I would approach my eighth-grade algebra teacher to ask for help with the math section of the SHSAT because of the fear of being left behind or not being good enough to score high for this exam. Unfortunately, little did I know that I was already behind. This was math that I should have understood except I didn’t, because although I was one of the top students at my middle school, I didn’t have enough knowledge. I was never encouraged by an adult to strive to go somewhere such as Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech. Instead, we were told to just transfer to a regular public high school.

I didn’t know what were the ‘good schools.’

“I often think about the friends I left behind” — Toby Paperno, a sophomore at Beacon High School in Manhattan

I’ll never forget opening my middle school acceptance letter. I had gotten into my fourth choice, while all my friends had gotten into my two top picks, the only two middle schools anyone in my white, middle-class neighborhood ever talked about.

There was a huge stigma attached to my middle school, due to it being the most diverse middle school in the district….My mother tried to switch me into one of my preferred schools. Because I had been given my IEP [an individual education program for students with special needs] on the last day of fifth grade, my grades weren’t an accurate reflection of my abilities….

At my new school, almost everyone was different from me. I didn’t know whom to make friends with. So, I did what was natural: I found my place with the eight kids in my grade with similar stories to mine.

In eighth grade, I had an amazing social studies teacher. He helped me appreciate the diversity in my middle school and get out of my comfort zone to make friends with kids throughout the whole grade.

Soon it was time to apply to high school. That spring, I stared with disbelief at my high school letter: I had gotten into Beacon, my top-choice school! Only two other kids in my school got into Beacon, even though many others had listed it as their top choice. How come we got in, and they didn’t? Then it dawned on me. We had someone to help us practice our interviews, parents who could help us with our portfolios and advocate for us.

My middle school had a high school that was filled with kids who didn’t get into schools like Beacon. It had even fewer resources than the middle school. The kids like me that went on to different high schools needed less support than the rest of the kids in my grade….

Now, I go to a school that provides me with every activity I could want, several music studios where I can play the drums whenever, a beautiful library, and a PTA that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

I often think about the friends I left behind at my old school, the kids who needed more but got less.

“I didn’t even know what the SHSAT stood for” — Gerardo Hernandez, a senior at Bronx Leadership Academy II

My parents were not born in the United States and they never graduated from high school. They went through financial instability and tragedy throughout their lives, and the conditions they lived through pushed them to immigrate to the United States. Navigating the education system was foreign to them.

In eighth grade I heard someone talking about the SHSAT — the ticket to better schools, schools where kids had their own books, multiple classes to choose from — but I didn’t even know what the SHSAT stood for. No one at my school encouraged me to prepare for it.

I landed at an unscreened public school in the Bronx. When I walked through the doors, I believed it would be a challenge  —  what I’d read about the school sounded great — but in reality I entered a high school that was performing below standards, where just one in seven students enters the school performing on grade level. I knew there were better schools, but I couldn’t transfer. I was trapped. So I had to make the most of what I was given. We got out of school at 3:15 p.m. I guess they thought the extra time would help us catch up. But we didn’t learn much. I tried striving for better with little to no guidance.  

Fortunately, during my freshman year of high school, I had the luxury of applying to and ultimately being accepted into … a free college prep program for low-income students…. I felt challenged  — for once  — but I also learned how far I was behind. Thus began the difficult task of trying to catch up to high schoolers attending specialized, affluent, or properly developed high schools. I felt vulnerable, confused, and a loss of self-worth…. [The college prep program] cultivated an environment where I could have intellectual conversations, collaborations that signified pushing each other to reach beyond our limits and build trust.  

Now I’m a senior and I am close to … applying for [college]. I plan to pursue computer science as my major, and I hope to double major in Engineering. But I’m ultimately disappointed there have to be programs like SEO Scholars, Opportunity Network, Minds Matter, One Goal,  Bottomline, Prep for Prep and so many more programs that have to help kids like me  — kids the inadequate education system has left behind. Because the reality is: for every one of me, there are nine more still left behind.

“For me, it was smooth sailing” — Coco Rhum, a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan

When I was in first grade, I was assigned the task of writing about what I wanted to be when I was older. I wrote: ‘I have a dream that one day girls can be president. Because girls are just as good as boys. I am going to study to be the first girl president’.… My single mother, a Ph.D., both told and showed me that I could be my own boss, that the world was mine for the taking. My zip code landed me in an elementary school with abundant books and arts and friendly faces welcoming me each morning. My first grade teacher fostered my curiosity and love for learning and helped me to see that I could dream big ….

This same privilege that made me dream big in the first grade has led me to opportunities and advantages; I have taken AP classes, have had multiple internships, have played sports and participated in clubs, and have my own desk in an art studio in school … While many of my peers have been unjustly left behind, I have not. When I was born, my mother moved to District 15 in part because of its schools. I attended a lovely and well resourced elementary school. It was over 75 percent white — five times the city average. In middle school, my privilege … continued as I attended a screened school in District 15. My middle school was similarly coveted, and similarly well-resourced. It was almost 60 percent white. And then came high school.

New York City’s high school application process is notoriously complex. But for me, it was smooth sailing. I knew the “good” schools to apply to …. I knew how to speak thoughtfully about myself for my Beacon interview, how to unscramble a paragraph for the SHSAT, and I knew how to pirouette for my LaGuardia audition. I worked hard, but I had already been on a path that meant that I was advantaged. The public high school that I now go to, which, when I applied, had screens for grades and test scores, a portfolio submission, and an interview portion, has an acceptance rate that is lower than Harvard’s and an annual Parent Association budget that is nearly half a million dollars. It is 50 percent white….

At each of the three schools I’ve attended, less than 30 percent of students have qualified for free or reduced price lunch — in a system where 75 percent of students qualify. All of my schools have been majority white in a system where just 15 percent of kids are white. The New York City public school system is segregated, and its resources flow to schools like mine.

“Even if you’ve managed to get a passport, you may still be denied entry” — Lennox Thomas, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy

As a young child, I lived by Malcolm X’s philosophy that “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” My grandmother learned that to be armed with education was to have a defense against systematic oppression. Her mother, born in the deeply segregated south, was denied a proper education. My grandmother did not want this life for her, nor future generations to come.

So every day during my third grade year in elementary school, my grandmother, with her high-cheekbones, thick box glasses, and sandy brown hair, made sure I completed all my school work along with extra assignments. She hoarded vocabulary flashcards, Scholastic News articles, math workbooks, science dictionaries, and any other resource that had been given to her by one of my teachers, all of whom she befriended. I was so well prepared during my elementary years, that I could not fathom how several of my classmates were at risk of being held back for not understanding the curriculum. This same feeling of academic shock visited me once more four years later when it was time to open my high school admissions letter.

Like every other student in my gifted and talented middle school, I hoped to be among the small percentage of students who would get accepted into one of the prestigious specialized high schools. I had spent the last four months cramming for a single test that would determine if I would enter a free academic heaven where opportunities were endless, funding was abundant, and the number of classes were in the hundreds  — or an academic abyss where there were finite resources, rushed curricula, and short staffing.

When I opened my admissions letter and saw that the words “no acceptance” next to every single specialized high school I applied for, my heart sank. I was slumped for a few weeks and started to think that I was somehow inferior to my peers that got accepted. At that time, I didn’t know that the kids that I was competing against were preparing years in advance….

Education is the passport to the future. But what wasn’t told to me and millions of others is that just like a passport, if you’ve got money, you can pay to get it quicker. If you’re of a certain ethnicity, religion, or gender, it may be denied to you completely. And even if you’ve managed to get a passport, you may still be denied entry to a country.

“Are you suggesting that I don’t work hard?” — Ayana Smith, a senior at University Heights High School in the Bronx

Perhaps the most infuriating argument I’ve heard is “black and Latinx students just don’t  work as hard as their white and Asian counterparts.”

My immediate reaction is always, ‘So, are you suggesting that I don’t work hard?’

Then, the person that I’m speaking to will usually retract their words to make an exception: “Well not you, Ayana. Your GPA is in the 90s, and your SAT score is a 1300.”

And, I mean, why wouldn’t they? In our education system, hard work is measured purely by results: numeric values that provide little insight on how hard a student truly worked. And, my stats fall above the national average for all races, so of course I must be more hardworking than my counterparts.

However, the truth is that I’m no more hardworking than the person sitting next to me because hard work is not always defined by being exceptional on paper. My peers do everything that they’re supposed to do: they attend office hours for tutoring, form study groups for the SAT, and spend more time than me studying outside of school.

But  no matter how much we study and prepare, we can only go as far as the limit allows us to … Unlike many of my classmates, I have received opportunities that they didn’t, opportunities designed to compensate for the faults within our education system. Because of this, I’m relied on by my peers to take on the role of a guidance counselor, instructor, and exam proctor.

I gave my old SAT prep books to my classmates who couldn’t afford them. I held mock Princeton Review SAT prep and tutored after school and during lunch. I sent emails outlining the essentials for the impending college application process, and I reviewed supplemental essays and personal statements. All because my school doesn’t have the resources to prepare students adequately for college entrance exams, and it doesn’t have staffing to accommodate the needs of all students: our guidance counselor serves 104 seniors, most of whom will be the first in their families to attend college.

“I heard parents complain that it wasn’t enough” — Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Millennium Brooklyn

“Parents in my school didn’t know about the achievement gap” — Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan

Sophie: I’m from the Brooklyn of brownstones, bagel shops, bike lanes, and grassy parks.

Tiffani: Parks in my neighborhood are dangerous after five o’clock. There is no studying in the grass under the shining light of the afternoon sun with textbooks that cost a dollar a page, a dollar a page that could be spent on funding teachers who know what they’re talking about. When it comes to school, people in my neighborhood think it’s all the same – you’ll get a decent education wherever you go.

Sophie: Go to P.S. 8. It’s one of the best schools in the city. That’s what my parents were told. That’s why so many parents decided to move to Brooklyn Heights. And it paid off. P.S. 8 had it all: parent-funded art classes, electives galore, advanced classes, etc. But still I heard parents complain that it wasn’t enough. They wanted more teachers with more degrees, smaller classes, bigger budgets, better resources.

Tiffani: Resources were always scarce. ‘I got my degree, I don’t need to be here,’ said the teachers who couldn’t understand our frustration, or whose frustrations overtook them, reminding us of that truth that they didn’t need to be there. So why were they?…

In my middle school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, we received our one minute of fame after being discovered by Humans of New York…. We were 99 percent black and Hispanic. We were constantly told that we were brilliant. That if we worked hard, we could do anything. That the possibilities were endless. That we were more than where we lived…. Cameras flashing, reporters asking, and money and donations and TED talks from our principal … but then … the cameras left.

Sophie: I have always been in a school with resources, a school with privilege. But many in our community complained that it still wasn’t enough: all they could see was what their child didn’t have….

Tiffani: Parents in my school did not know about the achievement gap. They did not have the knowledge nor the time to focus on what math books their children were getting, what their children’s drama teachers were doing — or if there were drama teachers. Instead, they had to focus on what they were going to feed their children, and what time they were going to take off of work to pick them up.