Test score drops mean uncertainty in screened H.S. admissions

For eighth-grade students looking to attend a screened high school, the opaque admissions process has gained another layer of complexity — their own state test scores, often lower than they had been in the past.

The city has been assuring parents and students that they won’t be penalized for the drop in state test scores following the rollout of tougher, Common Core-aligned exams. If a school previously looked for students at a level 3 (out of 4) or above, for example, the city has said the school should look for students who scored at least a 2.25. For schools that tried to limit admissions to students with a 2 or higher, the city is suggesting using a 1.8 benchmark this year.

Those equivalencies are meant to assure parents and students that this year’s system won’t work much differently than last year’s. But that leaves two open questions: Will students apply to different schools than they would have because they are nervous about their scores? And will schools will actually look at students who fall closer the bottom of their test score range?

“These kids, they were previously 4s and 3s, and now they’re 1s and 2s. And they’re really stressed about it,” said Quincee Robinson, who oversees admissions at Bard High School Early College Manhattan, which screens for levels 3 and 4. “They’re worried they’re not eligible to apply to our school.”

Only about 25 percent of seventh grade students earned a level 3 or 4 in 2013 on the English exam, compared to 45 percent of students in 2012. The equivalencies are listed on the high school application, but parents and students said they’ve gotten mixed messages from schools about how their scores will be interpreted. And the city’s high school directory, which includes admissions information, doesn’t acknowledge the test score changes.

Emily Avila, whose daughter is in eighth grade at the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, said she grew concerned as she stopped at different booths at the Manhattan high school fair. “Some schools say they’re adjusting requirements, but others aren’t,” she said. “It’s unfair.”

Admissions decisions are the domain of individual schools, which list a variety of screening criteria — grades, attendance, interviews, and sometimes their own assessments, in addition to state tests — that they then use to rank students based on the school’s preferences. (Students also rank schools, and they are matched by a complex algorithm.)

June audit by Comptroller John Liu’s office concluded that schools have too much discretion in making those admissions decisions, and principals were recently told that changes are on the way.

For now, one thing is certain: Anxiety is still high for eighth graders and their parents.

That was on full display at an Insideschools event in early October. The city’s director of high school admissions, Hussham Kahn, reiterated that the department is encouraging screened schools to adjust their standards. When a parent said, “That’s not what schools were telling me at the high school fair,” Kahn responded, “They’re saying that now. When they see the scores they’re going to see changes — they’ll see that the applicant pool looks very different this year.”

The city recommends that principals rank four times the number of students for whom they have seats in their ninth grade class. With fewer level 3 and 4 students citywide, even schools accustomed to having that many top scorers to rank will likely need to dip below those thresholds to fill their seats.

Robert Nicholais, a ninth grade English teacher at the High School for Language and Diplomacy, said at the fair that the difference between a level 2 and a level 3 will now have more meaning to schools. “Threes really carry a lot of weight,” he said. “Competition for the top students seems like it will be much higher.”

On the other hand, some super-selective schools are likely to continue to fill their seats with students who scored at level 4 — the number of which actually increased this year.

Other schools said they were making the message as clear as possible. At the high school fair, Robinson of Bard High School Early College said he was telling interested students that they should still apply because state test scores are far down the school’s priority list among its screening criteria. The website for Beacon High School, among the screened schools that students ranked most often, has updated its website to say it screens for levels 2.25 and above.

Michael Salek, assistant principal of guidance at Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, said that he’s trying to get the word out that the school would be treating any student with a 2.25 as a level 3.

I’m putting it on my website this week because I’m finding out people are uninformed,” Salek said. “I don’t want students who would do well and had a bad test to not apply.”

Salek said that he tries to stick almost exactly to the admissions selection criteria listed in the high school directory, because he knows how many schools vary from them — adding to students’ uncertainty.

The comptroller’s audit focused on that point as well, concluding that the Department of Education “lacks adequate controls” over the admissions process to screened high schools. That report showed that some students were admitted to screened schools without fulfilling the selection criteria, and that some students who did meet the criteria weren’t even considered by the schools.

The report noted that high schools do not have to provide the city with an explanation of how they rank students, and that the city does not monitor or audit that process.

In response, the Department of Education said that it would require schools to provide explanations of how they ranked students if their process diverged from their stated screening criteria, and said that the department would do its own audit of at least six screened schools every year. Principals were told to prepare for those changes in a memo sent earlier this month.

“It’s our goal that parents have access not just to great schools — be they screened or unscreened — but also to clear information about the application and ranking process,” department spokesman Devon Puglia said. Those changes will begin this year, which might provide more transparency for students and parents going through the process next year.

Still, the focus on state test scores can obscure the rest of the admissions process, said Insideschools managing editor Pamela Wheaton. “At many screened schools, it’s pretty holistic,” she said. “They don’t just look at test scores, and I really do think that parents are overly anxious — which is still very understandable.”