barriers to entry

In New York City’s dysfunctional high school admissions system, even ‘unscreened’ schools have tools to sort students

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn. The fair was organized by their school to help them overcome some of the barriers in the high school admissions process.

It’s 5 p.m. and the open house for prospective students at Pace High School in Chinatown is just getting underway. As students arrive, they are handed a clipboard with a survey.

They scribble away for the first 20 minutes or so, explaining the struggles they have overcome and which components of Pace they like. They indicate whether Pace is their top-choice school, if academic success is important to them, and whether they want to go to college.

“It is very, very important that we get the surveys back from you, as they are the attendance for this open house this evening,” says Michael Sowiski, an assistant principal at the school. “It does have an impact on the admissions process.”

Yet Pace is what’s known as a “limited unscreened” school, which means its students are selected by random lottery. Even though it has dozens of applicants per seat, it can grant priority status only to those who attend an open house or visit the school’s table at a high school fair.

Sowiski said the students’ answers aren’t used in the admissions process. Yet the very existence of the survey raises questions about whether the city’s rules for admission to limited unscreened schools are vulnerable to abuse.

Several schools, including Pace, seek information about students above and beyond what they actually need — but it’s unclear why. They may want to discern which applicants truly want to attend the school, which can be difficult under the current rules, or to target high-performing students for recruitment. Or maybe they’re just curious to learn more about who’s applying.

But one thing is certain: Collecting extra information gives schools a tool to filter their applicants, and the Department of Education does little to ensure they don’t.

It’s no surprise that the schools would push the boundaries. The entire structure of the high school admissions system, which allows scores of schools to screen applicants and pools most of the lower-performing students in unscreened schools, creates the temptation.

“Every high school figures out some way to limit their population,” said Eric Nadelstern, who worked in the Bloomberg administration when officials created the “limited unscreened” designation and is now a professor at Teachers College.

“I don’t think the solution is, let’s root out corruption where it exists,” he said. “It’s endemic.”

***

When the city introduced a universal lottery system in 2004, the idea was to give students access to a wider range of high schools. There are roughly 150 high schools with a “screened” program that weighs applicants’ academic history, and around 230 schools with a “limited unscreened” program that weighs only students’ interest in attending. After students rank their choices, the unscreened schools receive a list of applicants and mark which ones attended an open house or high school fair.

But the system isn’t working. As Chalkbeat has reported, open houses are often poorly advertised, far from families’ homes, and can be held during weekdays — creating a burden for all students, and particularly for many low-income families. And many schools are already not following the rules of granting priority at the citywide high school fair.

Part of the survey handed out to students at Pace High School's open house
Part of the survey handed out to students at Pace High School’s open house

Since schools are the sole keepers of information about which students should get priority, there is nothing to guard against them tinkering with their lists. They could leave off some students who have demonstrated interest, for instance, or grant priority only to those they especially want.

And some say that with the survey that Pace distributed, for example, it’s hard to imagine anything other than that happening.

“They’re really not supposed to be doing that,” said Sean Corcoran, a researcher at NYU who has studied the high school admissions system, regarding Pace’s survey. “There’s no other reason to use that except for screening students.”

Raymond Johnson, the parent coordinator at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn until 2011, said his school also distributed a short survey at open houses. And based on students’ responses, Johnson said, they might be included or excluded from the school’s priority list. Though he was not in the room while those decisions were being made, he said, he was close enough to the process to hear it being discussed.

“It was definitely something that was talked about,” Johnson said. “It was definitely something that many people knew about, and that was the way that they were able to recruit a lot of potential students.”

To his knowledge, the practice was widespread. “That was the norm,” he said. “But it wasn’t something that was promoted. Clearly, it was something that was done behind closed doors.”

The current principal of Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, Suzette Dyer, said the school still collects information about students, but it plays no role in admissions.

“We ask students to provide us information about themselves as well: what middle school they attend, how to reach them, and what they and their parents hope to find in a high school,” Dyer said in an email. “This information does not impact their ranking at all. Instead, it is used for us to begin creating a strong partnership between the school and the students and their families once they’ve been matched to our high school.”

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the brochure handed out last year at the citywide high school fair by Bronx High School for the Visual Arts.
Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the brochure handed out last year at the citywide high school fair by Bronx High School for the Visual Arts. The school no longer uses this brochure.

But even if the surveys are not used in admissions, Corcoran said, just distributing them could discourage families and students from applying to the school.

“You’re there to find out more about the school and then basically they’re putting an assignment in front of you,” Corcoran said. “That can be a real turnoff, and a student may just decide a school is not for them if they didn’t feel confident about crafting an essay.”

Sometimes, the interest form asks a question that city officials said is discouraged: Is this school your top choice? The current lottery algorithm was designed to incentivize students to rank schools in their actual order of preference, rather than limiting their top choices to the schools most likely to accept them. Some schools tell students the system gives preference to applicants who rank them first on their lottery list, even though that is not the case.

Other schools ask students to complete certain activities. At Bronx High School for Visual Arts, ninth- and 10th-grade counselor Sasha Santiago said students are asked to complete an art demonstration, which involves drawing a still-life picture, and answer a couple of questions about themselves at the open house.

Santiago said the quality of the artwork and the students’ answers on the questionnaire are not used in admissions.

“We’re a limited unscreened school, point blank, period. Nothing has changed,” Santiago said.

According to the Department of Education, schools are allowed to collect surveys or ask students to complete activities, as long as they don’t factor those responses into admissions decisions. But it is nearly impossible to know whether schools are following those rules, since the DOE allows them to operate on the honor system — allowing the schools themselves to mark who gets priority.

“We’ve taken concrete steps to improve the high school admissions process and we recognize it can be challenging for families,” said education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye. “We continue to review this process in our work to ensure all students and families have access to a high-quality school.”

***

Limited unscreened schools are permitted to recruit students, but they are barred from considering students’ grades, test scores, or attendance records in admissions. But there’s still plenty of gray area in the rules — and schools may not abide by them in the first place.

At the citywide high school fair, Cecily Zayas, parent coordinator at the Urban Assembly School of Music and Art said her school does “not only look at who comes to an open house.” The school examines three years’ worth of attendance and looks at student grades, she said, though it does not make “harsh” decisions based on a student’s GPA. Her principal, she explained, wants to make sure students are a good match for the school.

“A lot of schools tend not to [consider attendance and grades], but my principal does to figure out who would be a good fit for our school,” Zayas said.

That school’s principal, Paul Thompson, said Zayas “misspoke and does not have access to any student information around admissions and has a misunderstanding of the process.” Afterwards, Zayas herself also sent an email saying she “unintentionally misrepresented” her school’s enrollment policies at the fair. But it’s worth noting that information was disseminated to parents and students, since she was the one manning the school’s table for at least a portion of the day.

Also at the fair, representatives from George Washington Carver High School for the Sciences, a school in Queens, handed out a brochure with an “eligibility” section, stating that the school is looking for students with “excellent” attendance and passing grades.

Again, it’s hard to know if the schools are actually screening — and to what extent. Principal Janice Sutton said they only look at the “eligibility” requirements listed in the brochure after students have been admitted.

The brochure that representatives of George Washington Carver High School for the Sciences handed out at the high school fair.
The brochure that representatives of George Washington Carver High School for the Sciences handed out at the high school fair.

But students working the table at the high school fair thought the opposite. Chyanne Blakey and Darshan Boyce, both 11th-graders at G.W. Carver, said they thought students had to have a 75 average to be accepted at the school, and that students had a better chance of getting in if they had good attendance and participated in science clubs.

A counselor at a high school in the Bronx, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while schools can’t explicitly collect information on students, middle school and high school guidance counselors talk all the time and may informally share information about students’ grades or disciplinary history.

“If you have a source, they can kind of give you some information,” he said.

Several schools at the citywide fair peppered their sign-in sheets with stars next to certain students’ names to indicate an applicant very interested in the school, for instance, or one with a relative at the school.

It’s unclear how schools use those stars to recruit students, but Zoraida Torres-Rodriguez, the parent coordinator at Bronx School of Law and Finance, said she will do “anything” to convince one of those students to come to the school, including knocking on his or her door.

***

It’s no wonder that “limited unscreened” schools feel pressure to attract the students most likely to succeed. The structure of New York City’s high school admissions system means that most of the highest-performing students are funneled into “screened” and specialized schools, which can select students based on grades, attendance, interviews or tests.

A new report from the Independent Budget Office found that only about 3,000 students who scored in the top third of the city on state math exams picked a limited unscreened school as their first-choice high school, while roughly 14,000 of them chose a screened program.

Kathryn Malloy, the principal at Mott Hall Bronx High School, said the stratification makes it nearly impossible for schools like hers to compete with schools that use different admissions methods. “You’re being compared on an unlevel playing field when they serve completely different populations,” she said.

The temptation to cherry-pick grows when funding is on the line, said Amy Brown, a former city teacher who wrote a book about philanthropy and public schools. Many of the small high schools opened under Bloomberg boasted support from nonprofit groups. Those groups had a lot riding on the schools’ success, even as they agreed to support schools that couldn’t screen students.

“It looks really good to be unscreened, and have that door open to anybody,” Brown said. “But at the same time, what [private] funders want to see, they want to see numbers.”

Despite these incentives, the Department of Education does not have a comprehensive way to monitor how limited unscreened schools conduct admissions. The city has increased training and resources for schools and guidance counselors, and is having ongoing conversations with school administrators, education department officials said.

But that’s little help for Michael Zink, education director for the New York Foundling, a nonprofit that supports city children in foster care. He said he considers himself lucky if a handful of the roughly 30 students he oversees end up in schools with graduation rates over 80 percent. With these unwritten rules of high school admissions in effect, they almost always end up at extremely low-performing high schools, he said.

“When you look at certain high schools throughout New York City that generally have the worst student outcomes, you often wonder why anyone goes to those schools at all,” Zink said. “And the answer is, for the most part, it’s New York City’s most vulnerable young people.”

the right mix

How two Manhattan moms are trying to convince their peers that integration is good for everyone

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Shino Tanikawa, left, and Robin Broshi, right, say academic integration is a key to creating diverse schools.

As support among local advocates and officials builds for policies to help desegregate New York City schools, two Manhattan moms say mixing students of different ability levels is a key part of the equation.

Robin Broshi and Shino Tanikawa, both members of the District 2 Community Education Council, point to the middle schools in their district, which includes lower Manhattan, Chinatown and the Upper East Side. Most middle schools there are unzoned and supposed to be open to everyone. But with a highly selective application process, many of the schools end up divided academically — and by race and class.

Broshi and Tanikawa are determined to change that, but first they’ll have to convince their peers that academically integrated schools work for everyone — even students who are already high-achievers.

“My feeling is most parents will support a racially diverse school and they might even support a socioeconomically diverse school, but they still might have a problem understanding that an academically diverse school is also good for their kids,” Tanikawa said.

Their effort is rooted in an understanding of how race and class impact student achievement, and how using test scores and report cards in admissions decisions can shut vulnerable students out.

“If you look at test scores and you say, ‘We want to create academically screened schools that also reflect all the other diversities,’ you’re not really going to be able to do that,” Broshi said. “The whole reason we’re in this situation is because there’s an academic component.”

***

The kind of academic mixing that Broshi and Tanikawa propose is something similar to the city’s “educational option” high schools. Also known as “ed-opt,” these schools were designed to enroll students from across the educational spectrum. The city Department of Education has said it’s not interested in adding screened programs at the high school level, and has increased the number of ed-opt seats by 14 percent since 2015.

Broshi and Tanikawa aren’t yet advocating for specific changes to the middle school admissions process; they hope those details will grow out of community conversations that are just getting started. One forum the educational council organized last spring, which featured researchers talking about their work on integration, attracted a crowd of parents.

Still, Tanikawa knows it will take more than that to convince wary peers. If necessary, she’s ready to visit every PTA in the sprawling district to make her case.

“The only way to do it is to go to where the parents are, not to ask them to come to where we are,” Tanikawa said.

She is likely to face fierce resistance.

In 2013, when the city Department of Education opened a new middle school on the Upper East Side and proposed that only half the student body be screened, about 500 people wrote to the department calling for full academic screening instead.

“Without a screen … there is no ability to control what kind of kids will enroll,” one commenter wrote. “Half of the students will get in purely on luck, and these students will impede the success of the school.”

***

The question of how mixing students affects an overall student body has yielded a significant amount of research, much of which supports a different conclusion: As with integrating students of different races and economic backgrounds, mixing students with different academic abilities can benefit all.

One meta-analysis of four decades of research showed that academic mixing had positive effects for struggling students — and no effect, positive or negative, for average and high-achieving students.

Other studies have found more advantages.

One study of a Long Island high school found that graduation rates among all students shot up when the district stopped using different academic “tracks” with separate curricula for high- and low-performing students. Instead, all students were taught under a program that was previously only taught to top students.

Certain mixed-class models are especially promising, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that studies inequality.

He recommends approaches such as “embedded honors,” where students are taught the same lessons in the same classroom, but assigned varying levels of work. Cooperative learning, where small groups of students at different achievement levels help each other, can also work, he said. A review of almost 400 studies found that cooperative learning can boost higher-level thinking and promote the generation of new ideas, Kahlenberg writes in his book “All Together Now.”

But de-tracking is not easy to get right. In cases where the gap between top-performers and struggling students is too big, there may be no benefits for either.

Other research has shown that struggling students can, in fact, have a negative effect on peers. In one study, economists looked at the impact of the arrival of hurricane evacuees on Houston schools. The result: low-achieving evacuees brought down the average performance of high-achieving Houston students. On the other hand, the arrival of high-performing evacuees had a positive effect.

***

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and author of “The Diverse Schools Dilemma,” said it’s “reasonable” for parents to ask how their children will do in an academically mixed classroom.

Regardless of a school’s student body, he says, educational success depends largely on the quality of teaching and leadership.

“If the school can do a reasonable job to provide some accommodations for your child, and you get to have this experience of integration, then that’s great,” Petrilli said. “But there are tradeoffs. And I guess in the best case scenario, parents should be able to make a decision about those tradeoffs.”

For Tanikawa, the tradeoffs, if there are any, are well worth it if academic mixing leads to greater integration by race and class. The benefits of diverse schools — better graduation rates in high school and college, and even higher incomes later in life — have been thoroughly documented.

In the classroom, students from different backgrounds bring new experiences and ideas, which stimulates more engaging classroom discussions, improves critical thinking and may even boost creativity, according to one 2016 report from the Century Foundation. It prepares students to work in multicultural environments and can lead to more civic participation later in life.

“I know there’s a lot more to schools than academic achievement,” Tanikawa said. “I want parents to start thinking about what else makes a good education.”

barriers to entry

Great divide: How extreme academic segregation isolates students in New York City’s high schools

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Every fall, Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Lower Manhattan, faces the same challenge: absorbing a new cohort of students, many of whom didn’t pass the state’s math and reading exams in eighth grade.

Last year, of more than 100 incoming ninth-graders, only six who had taken the eighth-grade math test had passed. Only 15 had passed English.

Less than a mile away, there’s another school where the majority of ninth-graders passed the same exams — often with flying colors. And that school, New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math or NEST+m, is not alone: Dozens of city high schools have large concentrations of students who sailed through middle school.

The difference: New Design has little control over the students it admits, while NEST+m picks students based on test results and previous academic success.

“When the school opened, I don’t think we quite got how the admission policy would define us,” Conti said.

Indeed, high school admissions rules have placed New Design — and its students — in a system of staggering academic segregation. A small percentage of schools drain off the top students, leaving the majority of schools with very few students entering on grade-level.

A Chalkbeat analysis found that over half the students who took and passed the eighth-grade state math exam in 2015 wound up clustered in less than 8 percent of city high schools. The same was true for those who passed the English exam.

Meanwhile, nearly 165 of the city’s roughly 440 high schools had five or fewer ninth-graders who took and passed the state math test in 2015. (Some students take algebra in eighth grade, so do not have to take the eighth-grade test.)

When it comes to English, the trend is similar, though less severe: There are 79 schools where five or fewer of last year’s ninth-graders had passed the eighth-grade test.

The city is engaged in a robust conversation about racial segregation in elementary school, which is driven largely by housing patterns. Yet high schools — which are open to students from every corner of the city — have maintained a parallel system of privilege by using academic “screens” instead of geography.

“Academic screens are a mechanism for sorting the students who have had educational privilege into places where they continue to get educational privilege,” said Megan Moskop, high school admissions coordinator at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights “And the students who don’t have that privilege continue not to have it.”

***

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A middle school student talks to a high school counselor as he tries to decide where to apply to high school.

The city has long maintained some schools for very high achievers, including Stuyvesant High School, which started admitting students based on a test in the early 1900s. But between 2002 and 2009, there was a dramatic growth in the options available exclusively to high-scoring students.

In 2002, the year Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office embracing a platform of school choice, only 15.8 percent of school programs screened students for academic success, according to numbers provided by Sean Corcoran of NYU Steinhardt. By 2009, that share had increased to 28.4 percent. (Some schools house multiple programs with different admissions methods.)

The era marked an “under-the-radar explosion of screened schools,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

At the same time the city whittled down the number of high schools designed to enroll students with different ability levels. In 2002, 55.4 percent of city high school programs were what’s called educational option,” meaning they are set up to serve specific portions of high-achieving, low-achieving and average students. (In practice, few do.) By 2009, that share had dropped to 27.7 percent, according to Corcoran’s numbers.

The perils of screening have long been known. A team of researchers warned the city back in 1986 about some of the problems that remain in place today.

In 1986, then-New York City schools chancellor Nathan Quinones convened a group of researchers to examine high school admissions. The group, tasked with increasing access for students and maintaining school quality, warned explicitly against screened programs.

“As a general principle there should be no screened programs,” the report reads.

"I would hate to have my future determined by how I did in seventh grade."Clara Hemphill

The report also argues against interviews, tests developed by schools, placement based on residence, and admissions credit for those who attend open houses. The goal was to avoid “invalid and/or biased admissions criteria.” Yet all of those admissions practices are commonplace in the high school admissions system today.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has recognized these problems and started chipping away at them. The city is not interested in approving new screened programs, city officials said, and has reduced the number of seats in screened schools by 500 since 2015, a roughly 2.5 percent decrease in the percentage of screened seats. Officials also increased the number of educational option seats by 14 percent since 2015.

Additionally, many of de Blasio’s education initiatives have focused on strengthening high school curriculum and ensuring all students have access to advanced coursework.

“The work of fostering academic diversity goes hand-in-hand with our Equity and Excellence for All agenda to strengthen all our schools,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Still, roughly a third of school programs today are either academically “screened” or require an audition. Floyd Hammack, a retired New York University researcher who worked on the 1986 report, said he sees echoes of the situation his team was trying to address.

For him, today’s high school landscape is like a bad flashback. “All this does, ultimately, is make people think that the system is a game that they’ve got to figure out how to play.”

***

The depth of academic screening in the city is eye-popping. Proficient students are concentrated in screened schools — which admit students based on tests, auditions, or prior academic performance — and at large comprehensive high schools, many of which set aside seats for high-achievers.

But there are fewer large high schools than in the past. Most of today’s schools are smaller, and may have few, if any, ninth-graders reading and performing math on grade-level.

City officials did not dispute Chalkbeat’s findings, but noted that about 18,000 eighth-graders took algebra in 2015 and since some of them skip the math exam, that muddies the statistics. (Those students are missing from the data as eighth-grade test takers, but it stands to reason they are also more likely to be enrolled in selective schools, meaning the general conclusions would likely hold.)

The city also said looking at the schools that enroll the most passers can be misleading, since those schools also enroll a disproportionate share of the city’s total students. Roughly a third of last year’s ninth-graders were in the schools Chalkbeat identified as home to more than half the city’s total English and math passers.

Still, the vast majority of students are not in those top schools.

The city’s intense academic stratification has consequences for student learning, explained Halley Potter, a researcher at the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on reducing inequality. Students in poor-performing schools often contend with ill-prepared teachers, lower expectations, and more behavioral issues, Potter said.

“When you sum up all of those studies, you see a really clear pattern that low-level tracks have harmful effects for students,” Potter said.

On the flip side, a number of studies, though not all, have indicated that mixing academic levels does not harm high-achievers. Potter pointed to a review of 15 studies conducted between 1972 and 2006 that showed that sorting students by ability level had virtually no effect, positive or negative, on average or high-ability students.

Alexander White, principal of Gotham Professional Arts Academy, had fewer than five incoming ninth-graders last year who passed their math or English exams the year before. He said he understands exactly why it’s so important to have a diverse mix of students. Imagine a class conversation about whether to keep the electoral college, White said. Having even a few high-performing students to guide the conversation could make all the difference, he said.

“Peer-to-peer education is like the secret ingredient in raising student achievement,” White said.

The stratification also means that many students are effectively shut out of top-tier schools. Just ask Gloria Carrasquillo, the guidance counselor at J.H.S. 151 Lou Gehrig, a school in the Bronx.

Each year, parents of eighth-grade students come into her office hoping to get their children into schools that send a high percentage of graduates to college. But Carrasquillo often has to break the news that there are few of those schools available to them, usually because their children don’t have the grades to qualify for screened schools.

“They don’t have the opportunity because they are blocked,” Carrasquillo said. “They are not admitted, so they cannot prove they can do better.”

"If we're just thinking about it plainly, screens are a function of exclusion for black and brown and low-income kids."Matt Gonzales

Clara Hemphill, editor of the school-review website Insideschools, sees several problems with the current system.

Students in schools with mainly low-achieving peers may find there is no advanced coursework available to them, Hemphill said. Thirty-nine percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, and more than half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math, according to a 2015 study by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

The system also locks individual students into schools based on their seventh-grade grades and test scores, since that year is factored into high school admissions. That means there’s no second chance for a student to blossom academically in high school.

“I would hate to have my future determined by how I did in seventh grade,” Hemphill said.

***

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

While the city is trying to expand course offerings, including by allowing students on certain shared campuses to merge for Advanced Placement classes, other problems are more deeply entrenched.

At the top of the list: School screening has a long history of segregating students by race and income. Higher-income, Asian and white students are more likely to pass standardized exams than their low-income black and Hispanic peers.

While 25 percent of all city eighth-graders passed the state math exam in 2016, for instance, only 13.2 percent of black students and 15.9 percent of Hispanic students did. In English, 40.5 percent of all city eighth-graders passed the test, but only 29.2 percent of black students and 30.7 of Hispanic students passed.

The city’s most elite schools — the specialized high schools where admission is based on a single test — have come under fire for having few students of color. Only 4 percent of specialized school offers went to black students this year and just over 6 percent went to Hispanic students, though roughly 70 percent of the city’s student body is black and Hispanic.

But other screened schools reflect similar inequities, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed and an advocate for school integration. Any type of screen, whether it is a test, audition, or a look at previous academic history, will end up disadvantaging low-income students and students of color, he said.

Gonzales said high schools should be part of the citywide conversation about diversity, and that he hopes when the city unveils a large-scale plan to promote desegregation — which officials said they plan to do by June — it will include some measures geared toward integrating high schools. One of those measures, he said, could be further reducing the number of screened schools.

Screens “are designed to privilege and preference white and middle-class students,” Gonzales said. “If we’re just thinking about it plainly, screens are a function of exclusion for black and brown and low-income kids.”

Conti, the principal of New Design High School, knows firsthand that clustering higher- and lower-achieving students makes it harder for schools like his to succeed. He loves working with his students, but gets no extra support with the near-Herculean task of helping so many students entering the school below grade-level graduate on time.

Conti knows there are no easy answers. “It’s horribly complex,” he said. “It’s a knot right now that’s going to be very hard to untie.”