Pew report highlights disparities in high school selection process

Students who are white, Asian, female and not from low-income families are more likely to be admitted and attend the city's most selective high schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In findings that come as no surprise, students who are white, Asian, female and not from low-income families are more likely to be admitted and attend the city’s most selective high schools than students who are black, Latino, male and poor, according to a new report.

But the study from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative, which tracked the 2015-16 9th-grade class, did contain a few eye-opening revelations, said author Michelle Schmitt.

One is that Latino students with high test scores applied less frequently to get into these programs than high-scoring students from other groups. Compounding that, Latino students with high test scores who did apply were less likely to be admitted, and those who were admitted were less likely to attend.

Another surprise was that 11 percent of the students admitted to the city’s most selective schools and programs did not have the minimum test scores necessary, Schmitt said. In follow-up interviews, school and District officials theorized that this was primarily because some of the programs had space left over after all students with qualifying scores had been admitted.

At the same time, many students who did have proficient or advanced test scores did not get into the most selective schools, and there were significant differences in those numbers depending on race, gender, and socioeconomic circumstances.

For instance, 22 percent of all students with proficient and advanced scores in both language arts and math did not get into the most selective schools and programs. But among these high scorers, some groups had rejection rates were higher or lower than 22 percent: for black students, it was 26 percent; for Latinos, 34 percent; for whites, 20 percent; and for Asians, 8 percent.

Twenty-eight percent of boys who met the test score requirements didn’t get in, compared to 18 percent of girls. For students who receive federal poverty assistance, 27 percent didn’t get in; for better-off students, the figure was 17 percent.

Overall, 14 percent of students who had qualifying test scores did not apply to the most selective schools, but for Latinos, that number was 24 percent. By comparison, just 3 percent of Asian students with qualifying scores didn’t apply.

And there were also significant differences in the percentages of students in each of the groups who had qualifying test scores to begin with. Overall, 41 percent of all students scored proficient or advanced on the PSSA tests. But 71 percent of Asian students did so, compared to 61 percent of whites, 34 percent of Latinos, and 33 percent of blacks. For girls, 46 percent had the scores, but just 37 percent of boys. For students in poverty, the figure is 35 percent, compared to 53 percent of students not in poverty. And for English learners, just 3 percent scored at least proficient on both language arts and math. Six percent of special education students scored at that level.

Follow-up interviews with school and District officials and community groups indicated that the low Latino participation in the application process and their lower attendance rate even when accepted has to do with transportation issues and an overall reluctance for students to attend schools outside their neighborhoods.

Special education students with qualifying scores made up just 2 percent of the overall qualifying pool, and English language learners, just 1 percent. The District is under court order to enroll a minimum percentage of special education students and English learners in its most selective schools.

Pew analyzed individual student data for the cohort of students who attended District or charter schools in the 8th grade in 2014-15 and entered 9th grade in 2015-16, a total of more than 13,000 students. It found that in that year, 3,468 students attended special admission schools and programs, 2,111 attended citywide schools and programs, and 3,603 attended neighborhood schools. And 4,013 went to charters, which are legally required to choose students through a lottery if there are more applicants than spaces.

Overall, the numbers plainly show wide disparities when broken down by race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status, as well as for special education students and English language learners.

Schmitt did not want to offer any recommendations for change, but she said: “Philadelphia has a centralized application process, but a decentralized admissions system.”

In other words, students fill out a standard application form online, but admissions decisions are made by the individual schools. Other cities have moved to “universal enrollment,” in which both applications and admissions decisions are made centrally. Philadelphia rejected that approach three years ago.

“We can’t say one [method] is better than another. All cities have problems with their systems,” Schmitt said.

The data also indicate that the admissions process exacerbates segregation in schools by race and income.

The composition of students in special admission schools also varies significantly by neighborhood. In some zip codes, including parts of Center City, South Philadelphia, and Roxborough, more than half the 9th graders were in special admission schools. In parts of North, West, and Northeast Philadelphia, the percentages were below a quarter.

Central High School alone has 16 percent of all the students in special admission schools, but 21 percent of the white students. In fact, more than half the white students in selective schools are concentrated in just four places: Central, the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush, the magnet programs at Northeast High School, and Masterman. (Ironically, although this is true, all of these schools are among the most integrated in the area in terms of the diversity of their student bodies.)

Seven programs enroll high levels of black students: Parkway Northwest, Parkway West, Lankenau, Motivation, Hill-Freedman, Carver High School of Engineering & Science, and Parkway Center City. And six special admission schools enroll very low percentages of black students compared to their total percentage in the system, including Girard Academic Music Program, Rush, and Central (all around a quarter, compared to 56 percent of all 9th graders being black), Northeast (17 percent), Masterman (11 percent in the high school grades), and the George Washington High School International Baccalaureate program (8 percent).

Philadelphia School District Demographics

Pew Charitable Trusts
Bodine High and Franklin Learning Center had high percentages of Latino students, while Masterman, Science Leadership Academy, GAMP, and the International Baccalaureate program at Washington enrolled relatively low percentages of low-income students. Girls’ High, Parkway West, Motivation, and Franklin Learning Center have relatively high shares of low-income students, compared to the share in their overall 9th-grade numbers.

City Councilwoman Helen Gym said that the report highlights a need for more resources in schools so that all students and their families get the help and guidance they need to understand the process and take full advantage of the choices they qualify for.

“This system is not solely based on functioning meritocracy that simply rewards students based on talent and performance,” she said. “I’m concerned about how English learners and special education students, in particular, fare.”

Special education students make up just 6 percent of 9th graders attending the most selective schools, and English learners just 3 percent. Those numbers are below the minimum percentages required by the 1995 court case known as LeGare. In that case, the District agreed to set percentage targets for admission of special education students to special admission and citywide schools and later applied similar targets to EL students.

Most special admission high schools and programs have test-score cutoffs and additional requirements for grades, attendance, and behavior. Some require auditions and/or interviews. Citywide admission schools, including many career and technical programs, have less-stringent test-score requirements and varying standards regarding behavior, attendance, and grades. Neighborhood high schools are open to everyone who lives within their catchment area, and many charter high schools are available.

Overall, 56 percent of that year’s 9th graders were African American, but they make up just 51 percent of students in special admission schools. Just 7 percent are Asian, but they make up 17 percent of the students in those schools and programs. Fourteen percent of the 9th graders are white, and they make up 16 percent of those in selective schools. For Latinos, the numbers are 19 percent 9th graders, and 15 percent in special admission schools.

The School District, in a statement reacting to the report, described itself as being “home to one of the greatest systems of school choice in the country” and said it was committed to “a system of choice that provides all children with access to the opportunities they deserve.” The statement emphasized that the District is focusing on ways to improve the experience for 9th graders at neighborhood high schools, where rates of retention in grade and dropout rates are highest. With the system as it is, the traditional neighborhood high schools function as schools of last resort for those who don’t qualify for or don’t apply to special programs.

The study was requested by former Mayor Michael Nutter’s office and supported by the School Reform Commission as a way to better understand the application process and enrollment patterns.

“The report shows we must continue to enable greater access to the school application/selection process and provide more information to parents and students about all available school options so they can make the best decision possible,” the statement said. “During the last application cycle, we increased communications to families about the system and deadlines, including a mailing home to all 8th-grade families. We also contacted all 8th-grade students directly, urging them to participate in the process and consider their options.“

Editor’s note: The Notebook publishes a comprehensive guide to high schools and the high school application process every fall. The 2017 guide was recently published and delivered to schools. Students and parents can also pick them up at this weekend’s High School Fair at the Convention Center. You can also view and download the edition here. If your school would like more copies of the high school guide, please contact Lauren Wiley at