First Person

High School Admissions: An Inside Perspective

If you rolled your eyes after reading the title of this article, you are either an 8th grader, the family of an 8th grader, or a member of a high school admissions committee. While the gut-wrenching process of deciding where to apply will soon be coming to an end for current 8th grade students — at least on the side that you actually have some control over, the process is only intensifying for those of us in high schools.

When 8th graders turn their applications in to their guidance counselors in the next few weeks, it marks the beginning of a process that is as intimidating for the high schools as it is for those students awaiting the results. Over the next several weeks and months, we will continue to host tours and open houses to ensure that families that want to make changes to their applications have the information they need to do so. Simultaneously, we will begin to review applicants’ responses to our online admissions activity and establish the systems and meetings dates for our admissions committee, which will begin its daunting work after the holiday break.

Once middle school counselors have entered students’ choices, we will be able to view the students who “applied” to our school, by listing us anywhere — from first to twelfth choice — on their application. We will never know which students put us first and really want our school, and which put us on the list as a back-up, so our only way to assess students’ true interest in our school is through the online activity that we require. This online admissions activity, posted from mid-October through March when our final (final!) decisions are made, poses a series of questions designed to assess the applicant’s understanding of and interest in our particular model and philosophy. What we look for in the online activity (besides writing skill) is demonstration that the applicant truly understands that the iSchool model is different from traditional high schools and that he or she is attracted to this specific program (or some element of the program).

In January, we will begin to contact students who applied but who did not complete this activity to gently remind them to complete it.  Some students will inevitably skip this requirement, and we will assume that it is because they’re not that interested in the school. Other students will use the online activity as an opportunity to stand out. Those students who reference specific elements of the school and can articulate why those elements are attractive to them demonstrate their interest most clearly and genuinely. While many people ask us what kind of student we are looking for, there is really no particular student profile or trick. We want the students who want us.

In a few short but intense weeks in February, we will read each and every application (which we expect to exceed 2,000 this year), usually several times, and by different members of the committee. It is at this point that applications end up in one of three piles: Definitely, Maybe, and No. We assign points for each of our admissions criteria: course grades, standardized test scores, attendance, and the online admissions activity, enabling students who might be weaker in one area to make it into our “yes” pile if they stand out in another. We prefer to have no set cut-offs — after all, we are largely basing our decisions on the actions of 12-year-olds, who deserved to make and learn from their seventh grade mistakes, not be doomed by them.

We use the online admissions activity to help us think about which students will do well at iSchool. While we know that motivated self-starters will certainly thrive, as they will probably thrive anywhere, we also know that some students really strive to be independent learners. Those are the students who will be happiest at the iSchool because they understand that the school is consciously moving them toward that goal, and appreciate that the reward will be greater independence in determining their academic path. We also know that students who do well here are those who know what they’re getting into — a high school that is offering a different instructional model — and those who acknowledge the potential imperfection of something new and different. A demonstrated understanding of what that is and a genuine interest in being part of it are qualities that reveal to us a good match.

While many schools rank each and every student consecutively (from 1-400 or the like), we assign a “1” to those in the “definitely” pile and a “2” or “3” to those in the “maybe” pile. This means that every student we feel should be accepted to the iSchool has an equal, but random chance of acceptance.

By the end of February, we will have assigned, in the DOE’s computerized system, a number to each applicant who we believe has in some way demonstrated that she or he wants to be at the iSchool. We click “submit” and anxiously await — like thousands of 8th graders — the results of OSEPO’s computerized, algorithm-based system that will match students to their highest ranking school that also ranks them.

The results of this matching system will mark the end — either gleefully or disappointingly — of the high school admissions process for most 8th graders. It marks only a brief moment in the cycle for high schools, as we will just be entering the new schools round, followed by appeals, the tours for seventh graders in late spring, the summer and last-minute August over-the-counter placements, and then the resumption of twice weekly tours in September.

The process is daunting from all perspectives, perhaps flawed in execution at times, and certainly never-ending for us. But it does offer incredible opportunities that make it worthwhile and worth keeping: the freedom we have as educators to design and implement the schools of our dreams — the ones we wish we had attended — and the choice for kids and families to determine where and how best they will learn and accomplish their goals.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.