All of New York City’s public high schools need admissions reform

In an effort to increase accessibility to New York City’s nine specialized public high schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed expanding their admissions criteria. This may help reduce disparities by race in the educational opportunities New York students can access, but New York’s public schools need broader district-wide enrollment reforms to truly ensure all students enjoy educational opportunity.

New York’s specialized schools are its top performers.  They attain impressive results—with students across the schools averaging SAT scores that fall in the 99th percentile in New York State—and offer outstanding educational opportunities, receiving high ratings among New York City’s public high schools for supportive faculty, rigorous instruction, challenging curriculum, and effective leadership.

Consequently, students graduating from specialized schools have strong admissions prospects for the country’s most elite universities.  At the district’s flagship specialized school, Stuyvesant High School, about one quarter of graduating students are admitted to Ivy League institutions each year, including 20 to Harvard College.

Obtaining a coveted seat at a specialized school is arduous.  At eight of the nine schools, students must earn top scores in English and math on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) to receive an offer.  The ninth school, a fine arts institution, requires an audition.  The specialized schools’ admissions are incredibly competitive: In 2014, Stuyvesant admitted 3.6 percent of its 22,622 applicants.

So, who gets the golden ticket to a specialized school?  New York’s school-age population is about 70 percent Black or Hispanic.  But compared to the entire student population of New York City Public Schools and the student population sitting for the SHSAT, the students enrolled in New York City’s specialized high schools are disproportionately Asian and white, with few Black and Hispanic students.  During the 2016-17 academic year, Stuyvesant’s 3365-person student body was 75 percent Asian and 18 percent white; only seven percent of students were Black, Hispanic, or other races.  The same pattern holds at the eight other specialized schools: Of five thousand students admitted to the specialized high schools this year, only 298 were Hispanic, and just 172 were Black.

Mayor de Blasio’s proposed admissions system allows students to apply to specialized schools using their class rankings at their respective middle schools and scores on statewide exams.  Moving away from the SHSAT works toward socioeconomic equity since the exam advantages students with the funds to attend expensive test-prep classes and tutoring.  Because racial background is often associated with socioeconomic status, it may seem that the new admissions system will increase enrollment opportunity for students of color; however, on average, 44 percent of students across the specialized schools already came from low-income households in the 2015-16 school year, suggesting the specialized schools already sustain some socioeconomic—but not racial—diversity.

The underlying driver of the lack of racial diversity at specialized schools is a “pipeline” for educational opportunity.  In 2014, the top 45 of New York City’s 536 public middle schools—including the traditional and charter sectors—graduated 60 percent of all students enrolling in specialized schools.  Over 62 percent of these middle schools enrolled two-thirds white and Asian students.  Meanwhile, the lowest-performing 124 middle schools in New York sent only nine students to specialized schools.  Over 83 percent of these middle schools were racially isolated, enrolling over 90 percent Black and Hispanic students.  The schools that prepare students to secure admission to a specialized high school are predominately schools with fewer students of color.  Black and Hispanic students are excluded from a pipeline toward success when they attend underperforming schools from an early age.

While replacing the SHSAT with other standardized tests may not directly improve racial equity in specialized school admissions, considering students’ class ranks in admissions likely will.  Rankings more equitably reward students’ academic performance regardless of which middle school they attend, so the specialized schools are likely to grow more racially diverse.

But fixing the specialized schools’ admissions isn’t enough.  Even the rest of the city’s high-quality schools—which experience strong demand, often maintaining lower admissions rates than Yale College—perpetuate inequity.  Non-specialized high schools’ admissions practices often disproportionately burden economically disadvantaged students, making New York City’s public schools among the most segregated in the U.S.

When making admissions offers, even high schools that do not screen students through formal admissions criteria can set their own barriers to enrollment.  For instance, some schools consider students’ “demonstrated interest,” including attendance at open houses and information sessions, to determine the order in which seats are allocated during their lotteries.  Many open houses’ registration processes are first-come-first-serve, and some parents even pay admissions consultants to advise them of upcoming events.  Parents working on nine-to-five schedules have the flexibility to attend these sessions during evenings and workday breaks, whereas taking time off work to attend can be substantially more difficult for low-income parents with nontraditional work schedules.

To truly create a public school system providing opportunity and equity for all students, New York City’s Department of Education should look beyond reforming its specialized school admissions and implement a district-wide common enrollment system for all K-12 public schools.  New York City should learn from cities like Denver, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., who have created one application for both the traditional and charter sectors.  In these cities, families apply via a lottery system by ranking their school preferences on one application.  The applications in each district are then entered into a district-wide enrollment system, where a computer program matches students with available seats at each school.  Some schools use “controlled choice,” weighting their lotteries to promote further integration by reserving seats for disadvantaged students.

Additionally, since families with language barriers or lower education levels often require assistance navigating school enrollment processes, New York should create centers around the city where parents can confer with counselors to review school options and complete their application, as did New Orleans’ Recovery School District.

Mayor de Blasio’s proposal for specialized school admissions makes progress toward this type of system.  But New York’s Department of Education needs to go bolder than the current proposal: Only by addressing the pipeline of educational opportunity can New York truly make a quality education accessible to every student.  For the sake of the 750,000 disadvantaged children attending New York City’s public schools, New York should work toward implementing a common enrollment system district-wide.

Originally published at the Progressive Policy Institute Blog via an Education Policy Internship.