Report: Eliminate middle school screens, make high school admissions more fair next year

The coronavirus pandemic has upended New York City’s ultra-competitive admissions process for middle and high schools next year. Some parents are fighting to preserve the use of selective “screens” — like grades, test scores and attendance — while advocates for more diverse schools hope the city will finally take action to dismantle the practice. 

A group of experts and advocates convened by the Fordham Law School Feerick Center for Social Justice is calling for a middle ground approach, according to a report released Tuesday. 

They recommend an immediate end to selective admissions in middle schools, but advise a more deliberate and gradual approach to eliminating screens in high schools. In the meantime, the city could take a number of steps to make high school admissions more transparent and fair next year by encouraging schools to adopt admissions policies to boost diversity and developing some standard screening criteria.

“During this unprecedented time, a lack of guidance could lead to individual programs developing their own ad hoc criteria, potentially relying more heavily on capricious methods of evaluation,” the report said. 

More than 100 New York City high schools “screen” students for admission based on auditions or their academic records — a higher share than anywhere else in the country. The practice helps drive the city’s status as home to one of the most segregated school systems in the country, with screened schools tending to enroll fewer black and Hispanic students, or those from low-income families. 

But next year, many schools will not be able to rely on the screens most commonly used to sort through student applicants. Attendance was eliminated as an admissions factor so as not to encourage sick children to show up for class while school buildings remained opened as the city began seeing COVID-19 cases in March. Traditional grades will not be issued to account for the extreme hardship many students face accessing remote learning. The state, meanwhile, canceled standardized tests — that means the student’s fourth and eighth grade test scores cannot be used to sort them for middle and high school. 

The process of using fourth-grade academic records to make admissions decisions is incredibly stressful on many families, and the Fordham report calls for swiftly ending screening in middle schools, calling it “fundamentally inappropriate” for such young children. 

The report, however, called for more measured action for high school admissions. Next year, at least, the process should be much more transparent — a struggle even in a normal year. City leaders could do that by creating a menu of screening criteria for schools rather than allowing every school to devise its own standards. Schools should make their admissions policies publicly available, which is often not the case, and should explain their use of each screen.  

“Once we have those rationales, it brings transparency and it brings more information to the debate,” said Karuna Patel, deputy director of the Feerick Center.

The city should also take the selection process out of schools’ hands by requiring central offices to calculate composite admissions scores for students. In a typical year, many schools are responsible for ranking students for admission. 

Eventually, academic screens should be eliminated entirely, the report said, but it raises concerns about moving too quickly. Advocates want to build more public support so that admissions changes stick for the long-term, rather than as a single-year response to the health crisis, said Emma Rehac, a member of the youth advocacy group IntegrateNYC, who helped author the report. 

“I want to make sure that these recommendations are not just garnering support in this unprecedented time,” she said. “I also want people to support these recommendations [after COVID-19].”

Education department leaders say admissions guidance is forthcoming. Spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon said the city is taking time to hear feedback from parents, students, school leaders, and community organizations.

“We’re committed to an equitable and transparent admissions process,” O’Hanlon said. “While no policies for next year have been decided upon yet, many perspectives will be considered. Every policy adjustment we make balances keeping our students engaged without penalizing them for the trauma they may be experiencing.”

Any new policies should be revealed by July so that families and schools have time to adjust before the next admissions cycle, the report said.

“This is a really high stakes process for students and families, and all the stakeholders involved in the process are going to need time to figure out how to navigate uncharted waters,” said Dora Galacatos, Executive Director of the Feerick Center.

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