Ready for College

How many students are college-ready? Depends on whom you ask

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Thousands of New York City high school seniors graduated last month, but only time will tell how many of them are truly ready for college.

If last year is any indication, about half of the graduates are “college ready,” according to the city’s definition. But StudentsFirstNY, in a report released last week, argues the city should focus on a metric that includes students who don’t make it to graduation, which would knock the citywide rate down to just over one third.

Neither measure is wrong. But the gap underscores an important point: It is extremely difficult to nail down how many students are ready for college — and increasingly important for the city to do so.

“[College-readiness] becomes really the standard by which high schools are being measured, so I think it’s going to become a much bigger part of the conversation,” said James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a nonpartisan center based at New York University. “A high school diploma as a terminal degree is a thing of the past.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has staked out a goal of having two-thirds of graduates be “college ready,” and laid out an education agenda that includes a focus on algebra, college visits, and individual student counseling in order to accomplish that goal.

It makes sense that the city would focus on college-readiness right now. The city is graduating more students than ever — the graduation rate reached 70 percent this year, up 24 points since 2005. But that only invites the question: What are those students prepared to do?

The city uses a metric meant to judge whether students could avoid taking remedial classes at CUNY. It’s based on Regents exam scores, SAT or ACT scores, and CUNY placement exams and was created in collaboration with CUNY.

The metric doesn’t capture all the factors that determine whether a student will succeed in college, but it represents something high schools can measure and influence, so it’s logical for the education department to track it, CUNY officials said. Also, students in remedial classes complete degrees at less than half the rate of those not in remedial classes.

Yet some critics argue that test scores are not the best way to judge whether students are ready for college. Studies show that a student’s GPA is often a better predictor of success in college than his or her SAT scores, for example, though GPA isn’t standardized across schools.

Meanwhile, groups like StudentsFirstNY believe a metric that counts only graduates, rather than all students who start in ninth grade, artificially inflates the numbers. (The city computes both metrics, but the mayor’s goals are based on graduates.)

If the city wants to examine how well the system is preparing all students for college, it should start with ninth-graders, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards and tests.

“If you just look at the graduates, it’s an inaccurate picture of the system’s performance,” Cohen said.

The most significant critique may be that the metric only sets a minimal bar for academic readiness, and can’t fully predict whether students will actually finish college. Only 22 percent of students graduate with an associate’s degree from CUNY in four years.

Experts say there are a host of social, emotional and financial reasons students sink or swim in college.

“When you talk about the city’s college-readiness index, it would be a mistake for people to think that that is the only measure of college-readiness,” said Gregg Betheil, the president of PENCIL, an organization that helps to connect the business community and public schools. “It’s important for everybody to keep in mind that transitioning takes more than the academic bar.”

In the end, the city must have some way to determine whether enough students are leaving high school prepared for college, said Laura Zingmond, a senior editor at the school-review website Insideschools, who is skeptical that Regents exams are the most reliable tool.

“The practical matter is you have to set a metric,” Zingmond said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify earlier that the city computes a college-readiness metric that includes high school dropouts, but the mayor’s goals are based on graduates. 

one barrier down

City to eliminate high school admissions method that favored families with time and resources

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At 9:30 in the morning, the line to get into the citywide high school fair last September already snaked around the corner.

New York City will eliminate a high school admissions method that puts low-income families at a disadvantage and has proven vulnerable to abuse, the city announced Tuesday as part of its plan to promote diversity in city schools.

“Limited unscreened” high schools don’t have academic requirements, but give preference to students who attend an open house or a high school fair. For students entering high school in 2019, that preference will be abolished. The change will mark a big shift: about a third of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs were “limited unscreened” this school year.

The goal of the “limited unscreened” designation was to give students a leg up in admissions at schools to which they conveyed their interest. But a Chalkbeat investigation this fall revealed it has not worked as planned because some students were more likely to get priority than others.

City figures show that 45 percent of black and Hispanic students who listed limited unscreened schools as their first choice received priority, while 57 percent of the non-black, non-Hispanic students did.

“The kids in a priority group are more advantaged on every single dimension you can think of,” said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who studies the high school admissions process. “Every single marker of advantage gets reproduced through priority admissions.”

There are several reasons students might struggle to get priority status. For one thing, attending open houses can be a burden for families. They often require a hefty time investment and may be far from students’ homes. Some are during the school day, causing parents to miss work. Other families struggle to pay the subway fare.

Figuring out when to attend an open house can also be tricky. A Chalkbeat analysis found that the education department’s calendar is missing several dates. (In Tuesday’s report, the education department said it had plans to improve this.)

As an alternative, the education department allows students to earn the same preference by signing in with a number of schools during a high school fair. But at this year’s fair, many schools seemed unaware of the rules or were simply not following them. And some schools were collecting surveys and other information about students — raising questions about whether they were trying to screen their applicants.

The “limited unscreened” admissions method was created during the Bloomberg era and has expanded exponentially since it started. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of limited unscreened programs nearly doubled. Part of the idea was that small schools with a specific theme, like marine science or culinary arts, should be allowed to give preference to students who are truly interested in that particular topic.

But even Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein who worked at the education department when the policy was created, said the policy had run its course.

“It only made sense to nurture those schools at the beginning,” Nadelstern said in an earlier interview with Chalkbeat. “We’ve now grown into a different period.”

Schools have already started to migrate away from the limited unscreened admissions method, according to city officials. One quarter of this year’s limited unscreened programs have a new way to admit students for next year, they said.

Many of those schools became educational option or “ed opt” schools, according to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. Those schools are designed to enroll students with a mix of ability levels, but they often fall short of that goal. The admissions method that will eventually replace limited unscreened will “vary school-by-school,” Wallack said, but a number will become unscreened or ed-opt.

While eliminating limited unscreened admissions removes a barrier for many students, some question whether it will have a diversifying effect. About one third of high school programs are screened, which means they can admit students based on grades, test scores, interviews or other criteria.

Those schools drain off the top-performing students and also enroll a disproportionately low percentage of black and Hispanic students, who are often clustered at limited unscreened and ed opt schools.

“Embedded in this larger diversity plan is an effort to maintain screened schools, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed. “To eliminate limited unscreened schools, while maintaining all screened schools, is really disappointing.”

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, also thinks the city could go further. It could eliminate District 2 priority, for instance, which gives admissions preference to families who live in a certain geographic area.

In response to those critiques, Wallack said the plan is meant to be “first steps.”

“We are open to taking on additional challenges and issues and we may very well discuss other screened programs,” Wallack said.

In addition to eliminating the limited unscreened admissions method, the city is trying to increase access to screened and specialized high schools and make open houses easier to attend. They are also giving more admissions control to students and families by creating online applications.

Middle schools, meanwhile, will no longer allow schools to see how families rank them, a longtime criticism of the system. That will, in theory, encourage families to rank their actual preferences rather than try to game the system.

But more importantly for Eric Goldberg, a member of the Community Education Council in District 2, it requires schools to reevaluate their admissions rubrics.

“Without this plan,” he said, “the status quo persists.”

super selective?

New York City’s high school applicant stats paint a misleading picture, Columbia researcher says

Thousands of students and parents will soon use New York City’s hefty high school directory to sift through information about more than 400 schools.

But one expert says the directory, released last week, paints an incomplete picture — one that might cause needless stress or discourage students from applying to the city’s top schools.

Samuel Abrams, who runs a research center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says the city’s inclusion of each school’s “applicants per seat” makes schools seem more selective than they are. He has been making that point since the New York Times published a story titled, “Couldn’t get into Yale? These New York City high schools are more selective.” He considers the premise of that story —  and the stats themselves —  misleading.

“The downside is it generates undue stress,” Abrams told Chalkbeat. “It leads to the wrong conclusions about the city’s schools.”

Unlike college admissions, where students can be accepted at multiple schools, New York City’s high school admissions system is a matching process. Students rank up to 12 schools and get matched with only one, unless they also apply to specialized schools. That means a school may look more competitive than it is, he says, simply because a lot of students put it somewhere on their lists.

Readers of the directory are left with the impression that some schools have an extremely low acceptance rate, Abrams argues, even when they accept a wide range of students. Manhattan Village Academy, for instance, has 55 applicants per seat, but accepts students with GPAs in the 70s and state test scores below the state’s passing mark.

Additionally, many schools have specific requirements for students who apply, asking them to interview, for example, audition or submit samples of their work. Yet, students listed as “applicants” in the directory have not necessarily completed those requirements.

One simple solution may be publishing only the number of students who list a school as one of their top three choices, Abrams said.

The city defended its current approach. “As we work to improve the high school admissions process for students and families, we’ll continue to use the single word ‘applicants’ to describe students who apply to a school,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell. “This is the simplest, clearest and most accurate way to share this piece of information, and we added it to the directory in direct response to requests from families and school counselors.”

This is not the first time information in the directory has been accused of being incomplete or misleading, but city officials are working to rectify some of those problems and provide more information to families. Last year, they launched “School Finder,” an interactive tool for students to search information about each school.

Still, Abrams says this wording remains a major hurdle that may discourage students from applying to top schools. Low-income students of color are often not represented at the city’s top schools, and evidence suggests one reason is that they never apply. An analysis from the city’s Independent Budget Office last year found that even strong students from weak middle schools tend not to apply to top high schools.

Information that exaggerates the idea that schools are out of reach will only compound the problem, Abrams said.

“It stands to discourage guidance counselors,” Abrams said, “especially guidance counselors in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”