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New York high school admissions rules could slow diversity gains in pandemic era

Noor Muhsin, a senior student at one of Brooklyn’s most selective public high schools, noticed that this year’s freshman class was different from hers — and it filled the Millennium Brooklyn student with pride.

After admissions rules were relaxed during the pandemic, many schools like hers have seen an increase in the number of black and Latino students being admitted. At Millennium Brooklyn, the difference was significant: 43% of students admitted last year were black and Latino, compared to just 20% the year before.

In New York City, where public schools are among the most racially and class segregated in the country, the pandemic has upended school admissions: Selective schools couldn’t rely as much on grades, test scores and student records. attendance to screen students. The result at many of the city’s most competitive schools was a freshman class that looked more like the city as a whole.

But recently announced changes to high school admissions for next year could slow that progress, according to projections from the city’s education department.

“I’m really worried that it’s kind of going back to its old ways of being a mostly wealthy, mostly white school,” Muhsin said.

Millennium Brooklyn wasn’t alone in seeing a more diverse freshman class due to pandemic enrollment reforms. At the city’s 27 top-performing schools, 40% of students accepted last year were black and Latino, up from 28% in 2020.

“I would consider these changes quite substantial,” said Sean Corcoran, professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. Under last year’s rules, about 60% of all eighth graders in the city qualified for priority access to controlled schools – a historically significant swath of children.

But that access is being tightened again under new rules announced last month by Schools Chancellor David Banks. The new system prioritizes students who score in the top 15% of their school or the entire city by grades, and an average of at least 90%, earning them a “level one” designation. About 20% of this year’s eighth graders will end up in the first tier of controlled secondary schools this year, according to education department officials.

According to Department of Education projections, only 10% of students expected to drop into first grade are black, even though black students make up 26% of all eighth graders. Latino students will make up 23% of first-grade students, though they make up 42% of all eighth-grade students.

Projections don’t paint a perfect picture of who will end up in screened schools — it partly depends on who ultimately decides to apply and who ends up in specialty high schools like Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, which use a completely separate admissions system. . But they give an idea of ​​how the process might unfold, experts say.

Doubling on academic screens

Last year’s rules drew fierce criticism from many parents, who claimed they unfairly disadvantaged top performers by not giving them a leg up on the lowest performing children.

Banks heeded those criticisms, saying as part of his admissions announcement this year that “if a young person works hard every day and gets a 99% average…that should be honored…you shouldn’t to be thrown in the lottery with just everyone else.

The head of the school offered an even more blunt defense of the new admissions rules on Thursday when he said students who work ‘really hard’ should have priority access over ‘the right kid throw water in his face to make him go to school every day”. .”

Colleges, which suspended screens completely during the pandemic, are also now allowed to reinstate competitive admissions standards at the discretion of district superintendents.

Parents of high school students will be able to see their child’s grade number in the application portal, which opened on Wednesday. Education Department officials did not immediately specify which scores would put a student in the top 15 percent of grades in the city.

Overall, there are about 18,000 seats in the city’s 120 select high school programs, and about 13,000 students will land in the first level, according to the education department. Competition is often fiercest in a small subset of screened shows, which receive many more applications than they have seats.

Emily Yolkut, whose eighth-grade daughter is currently applying to high school, said it was daunting to look at the statistics on applicants by seat. “Each page you click on is more disappointing than the next,” she said.

And for kids whose grades may not put them in the top spot, but who are still interested in attending controlled schools, the process can seem even more daunting.

Cynthia Arbulu-Vacca has an eighth-grade son who wants to attend an honors or controlled high school but has at times struggled to reach his academic potential, in part because of his learning disabilities, Arbulu-Vacca said. She worries that this will limit her options when it comes to high school.

“Filtered environments…they want a particular kind of kid who can just get through homework,” she said. “Not all kids can do that.”

A step towards transparency

Advocates and experts say some changes could make the notoriously complex high school admissions process fairer than it was before the pandemic.

For many years, the city’s roughly 120 pre-screened programs had wide discretion to choose their own specific admissions criteria — using a mix of test scores, grades, attendance, and other factors. .

This year, almost all schools monitored will operate under the same set of rules, making it easier for parents to assess their children’s chances. Information on open days will also be listed centrally.

Twenty-one schools including Beacon High School and Bard Early Colleges with their own application processes, including essays and interviews, will still be allowed to operate outside of the top 15% plan.

“A system like this is a bit more transparent…it’s pretty clear how you qualify,” Corcoran said. “I like that look.”

Eliminating the use of state test results could also impact who is eligible for screening programs, Corcoran said, particularly in terms of gender balance.

“Ratings particularly benefit the girls – you can see a big change there,” Corcoran said. The DOE did not provide a projected gender breakdown of the first tier.

Some filtered schools are already all-female: 61% of Millennium Brooklyn students are girls, according to the most recent data from the Department of Education.

Banks, a frequent test critic, has argued that grades are a better indicator of a student’s academic standing than test scores.

Admissions systems that attract the best students from each school also have the potential to expand access, especially in systems like New York, where colleges are widely segregated by race and class.

But there are several provisions in the city’s new high school admissions rules that could dilute the potential of the “top 15 percent” plan to increase the number of underrepresented students.

For one thing, students must also score a minimum of 90% in addition to scoring in the top 15%. And in schools with a large number of high-scoring students, more than 15% of students can land in the first grade as long as they score in the top 15% in the city.

Banks pointed out that the city is full of large unselected high schools that accept a wider range of students.

But some educators involved in uncontrolled schools say the very existence of controlled programs can make their job harder by weeding out the best-performing and least-needy children, while concentrating children with the greatest challenges in other areas. schools.

David Adams, CEO of Urban Assembly, a nonprofit that helps run two dozen unregulated public high schools in New York City, pointed out that when “when we use these [screens]what happens is that some schools have to take on additional responsibility to meet the needs of a higher-needs population and some schools don’t.

“We are proud of the work we do to serve every student who comes through our doors,” he said. “I would like this responsibility to be shared among all DOE schools.”

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering New York’s public schools. Contact Michael at [email protected].

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