Philadelphia updates test score and grade standards for many selective admissions schools

An exterior shot of Julia R. Masterman High School on Spring Garden Street, with trees in the foreground.
Philadelphia announced changes to their controversial lottery admissions process for selective schools that will take effect for the 2024-25 school year. The changes follow significant backlash to the lottery system earlier this year. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

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Philadelphia posted its revised selective schools admissions process Thursday for the 2024-25 school year that’s meant to improve a controversial lottery system and provide more access to students from all areas of the city.

One of the biggest changes involves state test scores. Instead of using a student’s most recent state test scores in English language arts and math to determine eligibility for the top seven highly selective schools, the district will consider a student’s best score from a two-year period. And for all but the top seven schools and programs, a student can score as low as the 50th percentile on one of those two exams and still be eligible for admission. 

Attendance requirements have also been relaxed at 15 of the 22 selective schools and programs. Starting for admissions in the 2024-25 academic year, students need to have a minimum attendance record of at least 90% of school days, which means 18 or fewer unexcused absences. But at the top seven schools, the attendance cutoff remains nine or fewer unexcused absences, or 95% attendance.

Through lowering the test-score cutoffs and other changes, including holding sessions around the city where families can get assistance in applying, the district is seeking to provide more access to the most selective schools to qualified students from historically underrepresented ZIP codes, which are mostly in lower-income areas of North and West Philadelphia.

The changes follow significant backlash earlier this year to the lottery system for selective admissions schools that the district adopted in 2021 and went into effect for the 2022-23 school year. Hundreds of spots at some criteria-based schools went unfilled, at least initially, because students who did not get into any of their preferred selective schools through the lottery did not have alternatives under that process. A survey of students, staff, and others concerning the new system found that just one in five liked it. 

The lottery system did increase Black and Hispanic enrollment in the city’s top public schools in the last school year, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. 

The district announced changes to the lottery system in early August, although the information released by the district Thursday updates its website and provides more details about them. Preferences for students from underrepresented neighborhoods will continue, while the district is also working to improve access to magnet schools for English language learners and students with disabilities. 

Under the revised system, Central and Masterman high schools continue to have the most stringent requirements. In order to be accepted, students must have all As and Bs, scores in the 80th percentile or above in English language arts and math on the state standardized tests commonly known as the PSSA, and 95% attendance. 

As recently as 2020, the test-score cutoff for Central, Masterman, and Academy @Palumbo was the 88th percentile. But in the wake of the pandemic, the district lowered that threshold for Central and Masterman to the 80th percentile. It is keeping that lower benchmark.

For the next tier of five schools, which includes Palumbo, the requirements for 95% attendance and all As and Bs remain. But the PSSA cutoff has been reduced to the 65th percentile. Besides Palumbo, those schools are:

  • Carver High School of Engineering and Science. 
  • Parkway Center City Middle College.
  • The aerospace program at Northeast High.
  • The International Baccalaureate (IB) magnet program at Northeast High.

In the next tier, students need to score at or above the 50th percentile on the PSSA and are allowed one C. They must also have 90% attendance. The schools in this tier are: 

  • Science Leadership Academy (SLA). 
  • SLA-Beeber. 
  • Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP).
  • Creative and Performing Arts High School (CAPA).
  • Bodine High School of International Affairs.
  • The IB program at George Washington High School.

In another tier, the requirements are identical, except students are allowed A, B, and two C grades. Schools in this tier include Girls High, Franklin Learning Center, and Hill-Freedman.

And in the final tier, students are allowed A, B, and C grades. Schools in this tier include Motivation High, Parkway West, and Saul High School of Agricultural Science.

The full list of selective schools and their admissions standards is here.

Pre-algebra, space at certain schools remain concerns

The changes mean different things at different schools. 

At CAPA, for instance, the test scores cutoff was the 80th percentile before the pandemic. Before the revised lottery system, SLA and SLA-Beeber, which take a project-based approach to learning, had not imposed a test-score cutoff; they required only proficiency on the PSSAs as well as a project presentation. SLA and SLA-Beeber will continue to require projects; GAMP and CAPA require auditions and will continue to do so.

Masterman will maintain its requirement that its students take pre-algebra before entering the ninth grade. But that course is offered in only 35 schools with eighth grades, far from all the district’s K-8 and middle schools, and is less common in schools serving low-income areas. 

The district says it is working on expanding access to pre-algebra.

Under the updated process, students who otherwise qualify but have no luck in the lottery process and are waitlisted at all their five schools of choice can still receive offers from other selective schools not on their list that have spaces available. 

Before the lottery system, principals at the selective schools could pick and choose from among all qualified applicants. They often chose those with the best test scores, especially at Masterman, making its effective cutoff score much higher than 88%. Concern about an underrepresentation of Black and Latino students at Masterman and Central especially was a major reason for moving to a lottery system.

The district previously announced that starting in 2024-25, students in selective middle schools that also have high schools — Carver, Masterman, GAMP, Hill Freedman and SLA-Beeber — will not require eighth graders to reapply. If they qualify based on grades and test scores, they will be offered admission. 

This policy could have a particularly big impact on Masterman, where the high school grades are about half the size of those in the middle school. 

The school selection process for students in pre-K through 11th grade opens on Friday, Sept. 15 at 4 p.m. and will close on Oct. 27 at 11:59 p.m, according to the district. The district will be staffing “Application Assistance Labs” at schools across the city for families to ask questions and get help with applications. 

District spokespeople said they are also in the process of setting up a dedicated school selection call center by Sept. 8 that will allow families to call in with questions about the process.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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