Dramatic changes to the way Detroit’s main district decides who can get into its most selective schools meant more students were accepted from district middle schools — and no student got in without taking the entrance exam.
Those were only some of the effects of the controversial changes the district made to the exam and application process for students who want to attend Cass Technical, Renaissance, Martin Luther King Jr., and Southeastern high schools.
In Detroit, attending these schools is prestigious, giving students bragging rights to be among the ranks of celebrity alumni such as rapper Big Sean, singer Diana Ross, reality television star Kenya Moore, and former NFL player Lawrence Thomas. Admission, which requires both an exam and an application, is competitive: Among the top high schools in the state, they are sought after by eighth-graders from around the region, not just from the city.
Last year, amid patchy test-taking and an opaque selection process, just 1,607 students were offered seats at the schools through the regular application process. Only 46 percent came from district middle schools, and almost 500 additional students who had not taken the test were later offered a seat by appealing directly to the schools. (Another 179 students who took the exam also got in on appeal.)
“Often, relationships were a determining factor in admissions, not the attributes of the applicants and what they could add to the student body,” said district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson.
This year, in a bid to increase equity and give an edge to students in district middle schools, every eighth-grader in Detroit’s main district took the test and applications were scored consistently.
As a result, the schools admitted 2,858 students after the exam, filling every spot and sharply curtailing the number of students who can get in by appeal. Nearly two-thirds of the admitted students attended district middle schools.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he was pleased by the fact that all eighth-graders took the screening exam.
“One commitment we made this year was to ensure the testing of eighth-graders would happen across our district,” he said at a meeting last week. “This was about equity and access throughout our district.”
He also said efforts to improve the system would continue.
“I don’t think we’re at a point of perfection,” Vitti said. “At least we’re beginning to create structure and consistency, and we have data to track over time where the random process made it difficult to analyze.“
A consistent method for screening applications was a centerpiece of the changes. In previous years, there were no clear-cut rules for scoring applications and each school evaluated students independently.
This year, starting in March, a single team of teachers, staff, alumni, and administrators evaluated each application according to a points system.
Students could earn up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school admissions exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay, and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district also received 10 bonus points that gave them an edge over students applying from charter, parochial, and suburban schools.
The district enacted a minimum score, known as a cut score, that students had to reach to be admitted into all examination schools. In addition, because of high student demand, each school had its own cut score that exceeded the district score. About 44 percent of applicants did not meet the cut score for any school.
“By determining a cut score, the caliber of students entering the examination high schools increases,” Wilson said. “There were reports of previous years where students were admitted who were struggling with their grades, and had very low proficiency levels in the academic core.”
Not everyone was happy with how the students were selected.
Terri Berry is a Cass graduate and supporter whose daughter will be a freshman there this year. She said she’s still concerned about equity in the process.
“My concern is to make it fair for all the students who want to attend those schools,” said Berry, an officer in the Triangle Society, a Cass booster group that has objected to the changes.
Detroiter Seydi Sarr said her daughter, Hawlaane Sarr-Robins, very much hoped to attend Renaissance and anxiously took the exam last spring.
Sarr didn’t know the district was only giving bonus points to district students. Her eighth-grader at the James and Grace Lee Boggs School — a charter school — was disappointed when she heard she was put on a waitlist, her mother said.
Vitti said about 85 percent of students applying for the district’s exam schools are from Detroit.
“It’s important to note that despite students gaining entrance from outside the district, the vast majority of those students are from Detroit,” Vitti said. “We should be excited about the fact that non-[district] students are applying for our exam schools.”
The fact that the new process penalizes non-district students is a problem, said Rob Kimball, who heads the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, Detroit’s largest charter authorizer.
“All public schools in Detroit should welcome all Detroit students,” he said, adding, “We would be happy to work with [the district] on policies that embrace all Detroit kids regardless of which school they previously attended.”
But the new process has its supporters, too.
Julius Randall, 14, an incoming 10th-grader at King High School, said the new process has inspired more students to apply for the selective schools — no matter where they attend middle school.
The process also has weeded out students who were applying for the exam schools to attend with their friends, not because they were focused on academics, he said.
“If they don’t let as many kids in who are not going to do anything, or aren’t focused, they are going to have a better school.”
Another of Vitti’s objectives was to increase the number of students with special needs at the exam schools, but the district said it was so far unclear whether that goal had been reached.
“This is the first year of implementing the changes to exam schools,” Wilson said. “We will need more time to collect and analyze data.”