New York City will eliminate a high school admissions method that puts low-income families at a disadvantage and has proven vulnerable to abuse, the city announced Tuesday as part of its plan to promote diversity in city schools.
“Limited unscreened” high schools don’t have academic requirements, but give preference to students who attend an open house or a high school fair. For students entering high school in 2019, that preference will be abolished. The change will mark a big shift: about a third of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs were “limited unscreened” this school year.
The goal of the “limited unscreened” designation was to give students a leg up in admissions at schools to which they conveyed their interest. But a Chalkbeat investigation this fall revealed it has not worked as planned because some students were more likely to get priority than others.
City figures show that 45 percent of black and Hispanic students who listed limited unscreened schools as their first choice received priority, while 57 percent of the non-black, non-Hispanic students did.
“The kids in a priority group are more advantaged on every single dimension you can think of,” said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who studies the high school admissions process. “Every single marker of advantage gets reproduced through priority admissions.”
There are several reasons students might struggle to get priority status. For one thing, attending open houses can be a burden for families. They often require a hefty time investment and may be far from students’ homes. Some are during the school day, causing parents to miss work. Other families struggle to pay the subway fare.
Figuring out when to attend an open house can also be tricky. A Chalkbeat analysis found that the education department’s calendar is missing several dates. (In Tuesday’s report, the education department said it had plans to improve this.)
As an alternative, the education department allows students to earn the same preference by signing in with a number of schools during a high school fair. But at this year’s fair, many schools seemed unaware of the rules or were simply not following them. And some schools were collecting surveys and other information about students — raising questions about whether they were trying to screen their applicants.
The “limited unscreened” admissions method was created during the Bloomberg era and has expanded exponentially since it started. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of limited unscreened programs nearly doubled. Part of the idea was that small schools with a specific theme, like marine science or culinary arts, should be allowed to give preference to students who are truly interested in that particular topic.
But even Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein who worked at the education department when the policy was created, said the policy had run its course.
“It only made sense to nurture those schools at the beginning,” Nadelstern said in an earlier interview with Chalkbeat. “We’ve now grown into a different period.”
Schools have already started to migrate away from the limited unscreened admissions method, according to city officials. One quarter of this year’s limited unscreened programs have a new way to admit students for next year, they said.
Many of those schools became educational option or “ed opt” schools, according to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. Those schools are designed to enroll students with a mix of ability levels, but they often fall short of that goal. The admissions method that will eventually replace limited unscreened will “vary school-by-school,” Wallack said, but a number will become unscreened or ed-opt.
While eliminating limited unscreened admissions removes a barrier for many students, some question whether it will have a diversifying effect. About one third of high school programs are screened, which means they can admit students based on grades, test scores, interviews or other criteria.
Those schools drain off the top-performing students and also enroll a disproportionately low percentage of black and Hispanic students, who are often clustered at limited unscreened and ed opt schools.
“Embedded in this larger diversity plan is an effort to maintain screened schools, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed. “To eliminate limited unscreened schools, while maintaining all screened schools, is really disappointing.”
Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, also thinks the city could go further. It could eliminate District 2 priority, for instance, which gives admissions preference to families who live in a certain geographic area.
In response to those critiques, Wallack said the plan is meant to be “first steps.”
“We are open to taking on additional challenges and issues and we may very well discuss other screened programs,” Wallack said.
In addition to eliminating the limited unscreened admissions method, the city is trying to increase access to screened and specialized high schools and make open houses easier to attend. They are also giving more admissions control to students and families by creating online applications.
Middle schools, meanwhile, will no longer allow schools to see how families rank them, a longtime criticism of the system. That will, in theory, encourage families to rank their actual preferences rather than try to game the system.
But more importantly for Eric Goldberg, a member of the Community Education Council in District 2, it requires schools to reevaluate their admissions rubrics.
“Without this plan,” he said, “the status quo persists.”