You Asked We Answered

Why do some New York City schools get to choose their students? Here’s the case for and against ‘screening.’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Should high-achieving students attend one set of schools and everyone else another?

The question gets at a longstanding debate in education over sorting students by ability into separate classrooms or schools: Does it benefit the top students by providing them a more rigorous curriculum than is possible in a mixed-ability setting, or does it widen racial achievement gaps and leave lower-achieving students in less demanding classrooms with fewer resources?

Some New York City schools “track” advanced students into separate gifted-and-talented programs or honor courses. But some whole schools are also designed for high-achievers: Roughly a quarter of the city’s middle schools and a third of high schools screen applicants based on their grades, test scores, artistic talents and other criteria. Some of the city’s most renowned high schools — the elite “specialized” schools that include Stuyvesant and Bronx Science — only admit the top scorers on an entrance exam.

This school-wide sorting system has come under fresh scrutiny lately as city officials rethink admissions policies in an effort to get schools to enroll more diverse populations. But even as critics say that selective schools worsen segregation and leave low-achieving students in low-performing schools, supporters — including many parents — say that advanced students learn best alongside similarly skilled classmates.

This debate flared up recently at a Chalkbeat event focused on high-school admissions. During the event and in follow-up questions submitted by readers, many people asked: Why do some city schools get to select their students? And are there alternatives to the current system?

To find the answers, Chalkbeat studied the research, consulted experts, and spoke with parents. Here’s what we found:

What’s the case for screened schools?

When Sharon Kaplan was in school, it “wasn’t cool to be smart,” she said. There wasn’t enough interest in advanced history to justify a class, so she took basic economics instead, where she learned to write checks.

When Kaplan had children of her own, she was determined to send them to selective schools where their classmates would be as eager to learn as them.

“Having other kids in the class who are similarly engaged really raises the level of learning that’s available to them,” said Kaplan, who has one child at Stuyvesant and another who attended the High School for American Studies.

Some, like Kaplan, argue it’s easier to teach and learn when students are sorted by ability. How much you learn has a lot to do with who your classmates are, many parents say. And some evidence supports them: For instance, researchers found that when hurricane evacuees arrived in Houston, low-achieving students who entered the schools negatively impacted high-achieving students’ learning, while high-performing newcomers boosted their performance.

At the same time, teachers may have an easier time when their students aren’t at widely different skill levels. And selective schools may be able to offer more advanced classes, since they have enough high-performing students to fill the seats.

There’s great demand for selective schools. Popular screened schools like Manhattan Hunter Science, Millennium, and Manhattan Village Academy each had thousands of students list them as one of their 12 high school choices, despite having less than 200 openings each. Across the city, the demand for seats at selective schools far outstrips the supply.

Gifted students can fall through the cracks. Under the recently replaced No Child Left Behind law, schools were under pressure to lift up students just below grade level. As a result of that intense focus on struggling students, their above-average peers have often got short shrift.

Sorting by ability may benefit high-achieving kids. There is limited research on the impact of selective schools. But the research on sorting students into separate classes by ability, called academic tracking, has found mixed results for high-achieving students.

One meta-analysis found that classroom-level sorting harms low-achievers’ performance but has no effect on high-achievers. Other research, however, has found benefits for those students. One study found that high-achieving black and Hispanic fourth-graders saw their math and reading scores rise when they were placed in gifted classes; another found that states with larger shares of eighth-graders in high-track math classes also have larger shares of students earning top scores on Advanced Placement exams in high school.

“The research is very clear that ability tracking helps high-achievers,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a proponent of tracking.

It’s a way to keep middle-class families in the public school system. Finally, there’s a more practical reason to advocate for screening, said Samuel Abrams, a researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Selective schools are a way to keep middle-class families worried about the quality of the average public school from opting into private school or decamping to the suburbs. City leaders are “fundamentally concerned about white flight, middle-class flight,” Abrams said; elite selective schools are one way to keep more affluent families — along with their time and resources — invested in the public-school system.

What’s the case against screened schools?

Tanesha Grant’s daughter longed to attend LaGuardia High School, the celebrated — and highly selective  visual and performing arts school in Manhattan. But she didn’t get in.

Afterwards, she felt like a failure, Grant said. Now in ninth-grade at Urban Assembly School for Performing Arts, her daughter sees a therapist to work through the rejection.

“What are we putting them under immense pressure for?” Grant said. “The only point that I see is that it puts kids at a disadvantage and it separates kids into groups. The system makes the children unequal.”

Screening contributes to racial and socioeconomic segregation. The city’s eight most selective schools, which base admissions entirely on the results of an entrance exam, are disproportionately white and Asian. Only 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students, even though they represent about 70 percent of city students. A similar trend holds for the larger number of high schools that use a variety of criteria to screen applicants, though the racial disparities are less extreme, according to a Measure for America analysis produced for the New York Times.

A number of factors contribute to the racial imbalance — from the quality of the elementary and middle school that students attend to their parents’ ability to help them navigate the selective-admissions process. Some critics argue that the very act of admissions screening screening favors white and affluent students and disadvantages low-income students of color. Among the critics is Jeannie Oakes, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a prominent opponent of tracking.

When it comes to sorting students by ability, she said, it’s hard to imagine “that our deep racism and classism in this society could ever be overcome by some sort of fair selection process.”

Sorting can hurt low-achieving students. A body of research shows that lower-achieving students fare worse when separated from their high-achieving peers. A 1999 report summarizing tracking research concluded that “low-track classes are typically characterized by an exclusive focus on basic skills, low expectations, and the least-qualified teachers.”

In a sense, New York City’s system of selective schools amounts to tracking at the school — rather than classroom — level. The most popular selective high schools drain off the highest-performing students, leaving a large portion of schools with few, if any, students who had passed the state exams in eighth grade. Those schools can become the equivalent of “low-track” classes.

It’s unclear whether high-achieving students are helped. Several recent studies call into question the benefits of attending a selective school. Researchers found that, in Chicago, students who attended selective schools did not benefit academically compared to students with otherwise similar backgrounds who attended non-selective schools. Another study showed that students who just missed the cutoff to get into one of New York City’s entrance-exam schools were no less likely to attend or complete college than those who did get in.

What are the alternatives?

Eliminate or reduce schools that base admissions on academic achievement. Some critics say academic sorting, segregation, and inequality are inseparable — so screening should be banned completely. Others say there should just be fewer selective schools. Officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration have said they don’t plan to open any new screened schools — but they haven’t agreed to get rid of existing ones.

Allow schools to screen, but tweak the admissions system to promote diversity. It’s possible for some high schools to remain selective but also become more diverse, advocates say — if the city changes the way it matches students with schools. The city’s admissions algorithm, which takes in students’ high school choices and spits out matches, could be tweaked to factor in information such as parents’ education level or students’ ability to speak English fluently, advocates say. That would be a way to ensure that privileged and needy students are spread more evenly across schools — including those that screen applicants.

“The entire trajectory of the lives of hundreds of thousands of students could be improved for the better through a mathematical adjustment to the system,” said Elijah Fox, a member of IntegrateNYC4me, a student group that advocates for more diverse schools. “It’s inspiring.”  

Create a more consistent and transparent screening process. The city’s admissions system can resemble the Wild West with each selective middle and high school setting its own requirements. Often the criteria are hard to find and require students to attend school tours, take tests, or sit for interviews. Meanwhile, it’s nearly impossible for the education department to police whether schools are following their own rubrics or rules.

Standardizing the process could make it more fair. For instance, the city could create a common application for all selective schools.

Diversify exam schools. City officials have tried to increase the diversity at the specialized high schools by expanding programs like DREAM, which prepares students for the entrance exam. Others have proposed more radical solutions, like offering seats to the top students in every middle school. However, city officials have limited power to overhaul their admissions policies, which are written into state law. (Advocates argue that the law only mandates an entrance exam for the three original test-based specialized schools, but city officials say the law applies to all eight.) 

pick a school

Denver touts record participation in school choice process

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Students at McAuliffe International School. The school was among the most-requested this year. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even as more Denver families participated in the annual public school lottery this year, about four out of five still got into a first-choice school, district officials announced Thursday.

More than 27,000 families submitted school choices, up 17 percent from last year. Officials attributed the big jump to several factors, including additional help the district provided to families to fill out the choice forms, which were online-only this year.

The window of time families had to submit choices was also pushed back from January to February, which gave families more time to tour schools and rank their top five choices.

Match rates – or the percentage of incoming elementary, middle, and high school students who got into their first-choice schools – dipped slightly from 82 percent last year to 81 percent this year. Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of enrollment and planning services, said that’s not bad given that nearly 4,000 more families participated this year.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said officials are “thrilled” with the record participation. The district received its first choice form at 12:02 a.m. on February 1, just two minutes after the window opened, she asid. The window closed February 28, and families found out last week which schools their children got into.

The reasons families participate in the lottery vary. Some want to send their children to charter schools or to district-run schools outside their neighborhood because they believe those schools are better. Others may be looking for a certain type of program, such as dual-language instruction.

This is the seventh year the 92,600-student district has used a single form that asks families to list their top five school choices. Those choices can be district-run or charter schools.

In part for making it relatively easy for parents to navigate the lottery, Denver has been named the best large school district in the country for choice by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank for two years in a row.

The district especially encourages families with children entering the so-called “transition grades” of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade to submit choice forms.

This year, the biggest increase in participation came at the preschool level, with 777 more families requesting to enroll in preschool programs, a 17 percent increase from last year. The second-biggest increase was at the high school level, with 359 more families participating.

The most-requested high school was the city’s biggest, East High School in east-central Denver. East is one of several more affluent Denver schools participating in a pilot program that gives preference to students from low-income families who want to choice into the school.

Last year, the pilot program resulted in every eighth-grader from a low-income family who applied for a spot in East’s freshman class getting in. Results from this year are not yet available for East and the other schools participating in the program, Eschbacher said.

The most-requested middle school was McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver. The most-requested elementary school was Swigert International School, which is also located in the northeast and follows the same International Baccalaureate curriculum as McAuliffe.

Shutting down

Two charter schools led by former Mayor Willie Herenton will close

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Willie Herenton

A former superintendent who now leads six charter schools told Shelby County Schools he will close both of his network’s high schools this summer.

Du Bois High School of Arts and Technology and Du Bois High School of Leadership and Public Policy were already in danger of losing their charters because of poor academic performance. The charter network is led by former mayor and Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton.

In a letter to parents, Herenton said the decision was based on a shortage of “highly qualified” teachers. The letter was provided to Chalkbeat by Lemichael Wilson, who has three sons enrolled in the charter network.

“The market for securing the caliber of high school educators that meet these qualifications is very competitive and has made it increasingly challenging for us to compete as we would like,” the letter said, referring to meeting requirements such as proper certification for classes students need to graduate.

Wilson described the rate of teacher turnover at the arts and technology school as “ridiculous.” He recalled that in one year, his son had multiple teachers for a single class.

“I chose Du Bois because of the reputation of Dr. Herenton being with Memphis City Schools as superintendent and thought that the school would have an educational focus that was stronger than what it was — that the governance of the school would be better than what it was, and the administration would be better than what it was,” he said.

The decision affects a total of 287 students enrolled at both schools as of Feb. 1, according to Shelby County Schools data. That’s down from 322 students enrolled last year.

The high schools in Whitehaven and Southeast Memphis opened in 2013 and 2014 and are two of six in Herenton’s charter network. All but one of them are in danger of being shut down by the state next year because they rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools with low student test performance in Tennessee.

The arts and technology high school was also one of seven charters under Shelby County Schools that are in danger of closing if they don’t improve within two years, based on the district’s own evaluation. Three of those seven are in Herenton’s network.

Reached by phone, Herenton referred all requests for comment to Shelby County Schools, though the district did not play a role in closing the school this year.

A Shelby County Schools spokeswoman said the district would work with the charter network “to ensure that families are informed of their options” for next school year.

A request for comment from the charter network’s board chairman, Ernest Strickland, was not immediately returned.

The full letter is below: