Professor Mira Debs
EDST 240: Cities, Suburbs and School Choice
6 May 2016
With 438 institutions, the New York City public high school system is advertised as offering its students “more high school options than students living in any other city in the country” (New York City High School Directory, 1). However, that choice seems limited with over 80,000 students vying for spots in a select number of satisfactory schools (Introduction to High School Admissions Summer Workshop Packet, 6). As choice spurs competition among students, the process results in unequal outcomes depending on their access to information which is often correlated with race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Such disparities are particularly evident in the process for admittance to the city’s eight specialized high schools. Specialized high schools are elite educational institutions that are among the highest performing in the city. Admissions to these schools for “the academically gifted” are determined solely by the results of an entrance exam (“Specialized High Schools”). Despite the implied meritocratic nature of a test, the schools’ compositions–mainly Asian and white in a school system that is predominantly Latino and Black–suggests to many critics that the exam may be biased against minority students. While the homogeneity of specialized high schools can be attributed to many other factors including implicit bias in supposedly neutral entrance examinations and residential segregation, I believe that the least difficult problem to address is the information gap that exists between families at the opposite polarities of the socioeconomic scale. Successful school choice requires parents and families to have knowledge and agency in making decisions for their children. Information on high schools and the admissions process should be available to all families, and there must be a system-wide effort to help parents understand and utilize the information in the same way. This paper will suggest a method for incorporating equitable marketing New York City Public High Schools to Black and Latino families that will both improve outcomes in the high school selection and admissions process.
The New York City High School Choice Process
Although systems of school choice are imagined as tools for eliminating school segregation, the New York City public high school choice system that was redesigned in 2003 was not created with diversity in mind (Abdulkadiroglu, Pathak, & Roth). Instead, it was constructed to ease the congestion of the original choice process, and the failure to address information gaps that exist in low-income minority communities has only reinforced and reproduced segregation by race and class in high schools. Prior to 2003, students applied to up to five schools, and the schools themselves determined which applicants they would accept. The result was “a congested market” in which a small number of high-performing students received multiple offers, thus having an actual choice while nearly half of the applicants–many of them lower-performing students from low-income families– received no offers (Abdulkadiroglu, Pathak, & Roth). These applicants would then be required to wait to be placed in the summer in the second round of matching. Many would be admitted to schools they did not rank, which tended to be lower performing than the students desired. Another negative facet of this old system was that sought-after schools often only accepted applicants who had ranked them as their first choice. Thus, students who made more ambitious choices and were rejected would then be snubbed by their remaining choices (Tullis 2014). Good schools are a scarce commodity in the city which made fashioning an equitable way to distribute them most imperative.
However, the redesign sought only to fix the issue of ensuring that every student got one match rather than ensuring that the availability of choice was equal at all income levels and races. In 2003, Nobel Prize winning economist Alvin Roth and his colleagues Atila Abdulkadrigolu, and Parag Pathak implemented a version of the deferred acceptance algorithm, whose most widespread use is to match graduates of medical school to residency programs, which involved both students and schools listing their preferences but having the Department of Education responsible for the sorting (Abdulkadiroglu, Pathak, & Roth, 2005). In its first year of implementation, the number of unmatched in the first round of matching fell from 31,000 in 2003 to roughly 3,000 (or 8 percent of the applicant pool) (Tullis 2014). In 2014, forty-eight percent received offers from their top choice, and 86 percent were matched within their top five schools (Introduction to High School Admissions Summer Workshop Packet, 6). In the redesigned choice system, all rising ninth graders apply in December of their eighth-grade year by completing the Department of Education’s High School Admissions Application form which asks for basic information such as gender, school information, final report card grades, and attendance record. In this application, students must also rank up to 12 high schools (not including specialized high schools which will be discussed later). In February, the algorithm is employed to match the applicants to one of the twelve listed schools. The algorithm goes through all the proposed schools on a student’s list and attempts to match them with the school highest on the list that they are eligible to attend, based on whether they have met the admissions criteria for the school and there are available seats. The admissions methods determine the way students are selected to receive an offer to a particular high school. Some schools are completely unscreened and thus have no admissions methods; these schools are the least selected as students are purely chosen at random from the list of those who ranked that school. However, for the most selective admissions methods may include auditions, on-site exams, standardized test scores, interviews, essays, or place of residence (zoning) and, in some cases, a combination of these methods (New York City High School Directory, 5).
Although more students got placed in high schools in the first round, the process heavily favored middle to upper income, college-educated families who would be familiar with this type of higher education matching model. Wealthier, educated families engaging in the NYC choice process appear to be desired and prioritized by the Department of Education as this medical school choice algorithm model is one that they are already familiar with (Perez 12). In addition to having this baseline of awareness of the process, they can also invest more time and effort into researching schools, the application process and the best strategy for gaming the system. While wealthy parents begin learning about the specifics of the NYC process from the moment their child comes of school age, most low-income families do not begin learning about the process until their child is in seventh or eighth grade. As Perez writes, “poor parents are not aware that the high school admissions process is a competitive game that has specific rules” (Perez 446). Higher-income parents knew how to make the system work for them while low-income families, unfortunately, placed an undue amount of faith in the process even as it failed to produce quality choices for their children (Perez 371). Low-income minority families accept the facade that all schools in the system are good or worth the choice and that the same choices are available to all families by the mere ranking of preferences. Sadly, they are not aware of the dynamics of the political economy that allows wealthy and middle-class families to benefit from the public system. Thus, it is low-income, minority families–those who need quality public schools the most because they cannot afford other options–having disparate incomes because the system prevents them from accessing and utilizing information in the same way.
The Specialized High Schools Process
Perhaps the most disparate of high school choice outcomes is occurring in the city’s top high schools– the specialized high schools. Each specialized high school offers the standard New York State liberal arts curriculum in addition to rigorous electives, especially in the school’s area of specialization or theme. Modeled after the Boston Latin School, the specialized high schools were the epitome of American meritocracy–institutions that provided “unlimited educational opportunity to any New York pupil qualified to take advantage of it, including the most talented children of the city’s multitudinous immigrants” (MacDonald). These high schools are among the highest performing in the city. They have more course offerings and the most extracurricular activities and sports teams than most other high schools in New York City, public or otherwise. These schools are also informal feeders into the Ivy League and top colleges in the United States and have produced several Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and leaders around the globe. Eight of the nine current specialized high schools require students to sit the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the sole admissions criteria. The other specialized high school, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (LaGuardia High School), in keeping with its artistic mission, requires that students audition/present portfolio of work instead of taking the SHSAT. As such, LaGuardia will not be discussed here. The other eight–namely Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School, The Brooklyn Latin School, Staten Island Technical School, High School of American Studies at Lehman College, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, and the High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at the City College of New York–conceivably give students the best chance at an excellent high school education because unlike other top-performing high schools like Hunter College High School, admittance is not complicated by a multiplicity of factors such as standardized test scores, essays, and interviews (2015-2016 Specialized High Schools Student Handbook). However, the information gap appears to be at its worst in regards to the specialized high schools. Few minority families opt to take the test and even fewer gain admittance into one of the eight.
Every October roughly 29,000 eighth grade New York City students opt to take the free but difficult examination for entrance into one of the specialized public high schools. Although they will also apply to be matched to traditional public high schools, most test takers hope to be one of the 5,000 to score high enough to be granted a seat at a specialized school. To determine offers to a Specialized High School, scores are matched with the schools the have ranked. Scores from all the students who sat the exam are ranked from highest to lowest. The highest performing student is automatically placed in his first choice specialized high school and each subsequent student is matched with the school they have ranked highest until all available seats in that school are filled. If a student does not score high enough to get a seat at their first choice school, then the student is matched with their second choice specialized high school. Traditionally, Stuyvesant High School attracts students with the highest scores and thus Stuyvesant is normally the school whose seats are filled first, followed by the Bronx High School of Science, and so on. This process continues until all the available seats at all eight specialized high schools are filled. After this process, any student not matched with a specialized high school enters the general pool of students seeking placement in traditional public schools (2015-2016 Specialized High Schools Student Handbook).
Specialized high schools have “become a powerful symbol in a larger public debate about educational equity” (Corcoran 2015). For decades, the admissions process to these public high schools has been plagued by controversy because of the underrepresentation of African-American and Latino students in their populations. In 2012, New York City’s overall eighth-grade population was 16.6 percent Asian, 15.2 percent white, 27.7 percent African-American, and 40.5 percent Latino. However, as Corcoran and Baker-Smith write, the incoming ninth grade population at the three oldest and largest schools, Stuyvesant, the Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical School, was wholly unrepresentative of the city at large— 22 percent were white, and 64 percent were Asian, while just 4 percent and 5 percent were African-American or Latino, respectively (Wong).
Critics argue that test is biased against Black and Latino students who often attend poor middle schools that cannot satisfactorily prepare students in the advanced topics in math and English featured on the test. Similar to the SAT for college admissions, the SHSAT is two-sectioned test that assesses reading and quantitative skills. In 150 minutes, students must complete 50 mathematics and 45 verbal multiple choice questions (Taylor 15). As the Specialized High Schools Student Handbook describes, “The test measures knowledge and skills students have gained over the years. Keeping up with schoolwork throughout the year is the best possible preparation” (16). Although the concepts on the test are taught as part of the regular middle school curriculum, the types of questions and level of difficulty would be unfamiliar to students if they did not have outside learning (Taylor 15).The belief is that questions in this manner may tap into higher order thinking skills than those measured by state achievement test scores or elementary and middle school performance and indicate the potential for success at one of these schools. However, critics argue that many low-income, minority students, who already attend poor performing schools that do not sufficiently teach the basic curriculum, would be thoroughly disadvantaged. Most successfully admitted students have studied for months or even years and many have worked with tutors or have taken at least one exam preparation course to gain a competitive edge to secure entrance (Taylor 15). Thus, the use of a test is seen additionally as discriminatory method of gauging potential achievement because the testing culture favors those families who can afford outside test preparation. This invariably prohibits socioeconomically disadvantaged students from a high-quality education. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has requested proposals from testing companies to create a new, more equitable test (Wong). Nevertheless, most reformers advocate greater change including adopting additional admissions criteria for these schools, would include school grades, attendance records, and state test scores (Taylor).
However, this paper argues that strategies that aim to push one minority out in order to let another minority group in are counterproductive. Research reveals no bias in the test; in fact, evidence shows that requiring multiple admissions criteria would lead to even fewer percentages of African-American and Latino students (Wong). Most test antagonizers also fail to recognize that although outside test prep is prevalent, between 34 percent to 61 percent of the students at all of these specialized high schools are eligible for free lunch (classified as a family of four earning under $35,000 per year) (Robinson).
Although improving the quality of middle schools for all students and combatting residential segregation would be the most ideal political solutions, the racial imbalance can also be tackled by addressing the deeper systemic problems in communication of the availability and value of the specialized high school option. Corcoran and Baker-Smith find that the likelihood of taking the test was correlated to race with Latino and Black students each 3 percent less likely to sit the SHSAT than white students. Asian students, on the other hand, were 17 percent more likely than the average to take the test (DiMartino 2015). The SHSAT is particularly popular among first-generation Asian families and journalistic and anecdotal evidence suggests that knowledge of the SHSAT extends as far as mainland China (Wong). Black and Latino students, on the other hand, have often never heard about the exam or have been told by their middle school guidance counselors that specialized high schools “[aren’t] for our kids” (Santos). If Black and Latino families have greater difficulty accessing and interpreting information about high school choice options and are being told that certain elite options do not match with their intrinsic identities, then they are already limiting themselves to lower academic achievement. Thus, policy interventions that reduce the cost of acquiring and analyzing information on high schools may result in more low-income Black and Latino parents exercising greater and more equitable choice in the admissions process. As a result, one solution may be to improve the marketing of and provision of information about specialized high schools to Black and Latino populations to improve the numbers of students who sit the exam.
Closing the Information Gap
Addressing the inequitable distribution of information about the specialized high school admissions process can improve levels diversity in the numbers of students taking the SHSAT and gaining entrance into the specialized high schools. The New York City High School Directory is a key resource for understanding this process and the multitude of options available. It provides information on the application process and time and basic information on the 438 different high schools including curriculum, extra-curricular activities, and eligibility (New York City High School Directory). Every middle school guidance counselor should be in possession of the directory, however, Perez found the discrepancies in its distribution. More specifically, Perez finds that elementary schools in middle and upper middle class neighborhoods such as the Upper East Side of Manhattan had more access to the books than areas such as Spanish Harlem where the books were distributed late into the application process and sometimes Spanish-language versions were never distributed (Perez 398). Although the directory is available online, low-income, especially non-English speaking immigrant, families would have a hard time finding it on the very convoluted department website.
Although the directory was the main publication that families and staff referred to, Perez finds that higher-income parents were able to supplement the directory better than low-income parents because of “cultural differences” in seeking information (Perez 264). The directory is 649 pages long and thus cumbersome and overwhelming to many especially someone unfamiliar with the process (New York City High School Directory).
However, Madeline Perez finds that higher-income parents were able to circumvent the overwhelming task of sifting through the directory by accessing “trusted networks” of colleagues familiar with the system (226-227). Below Perez provides commentary and quotes from her conversations with Debbie, a mother who lives on the Upper East Side engaging in the process:
“The [directory] is huge and about five pounds heavy! We knew not to look through the entire thing…We knew what the deal was because of parents we’re acquainted with that have been at those schools.”… none of these parents used the directory as the sole source of information. Moreover, parents wrote comments on survey such as ‘the directory is only good for confirming program codes and school contact information” (226-227).
Low income parents simply relying on the information listed in the NYC high school directory was problematic because families often assume that the school offerings are consistent. Therefore, “students are disappointed when they discover the specialized program they want no longer exists, only consists of one class, or have been significantly diminished” (2010, p. 14). Perez uncovered that the information in the directory is collected nine months in advance, therefore offerings sometimes change (Perez, 400). Information on the choice process is at a premium because of the institutional belief on the part of the Department of Education that middle schools and families can and should take a more active role in the information retrieving process. The Department of Education website is especially telling of this logic in that it frequently suggests that middle school guidance counselors would be the main source of information and points of contact during this process (“Specialized High Schools”). However, in reality most middle schools in low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods have insufficient numbers of guidance counselors who are neither explicitly trained to handle or told to prioritize high school choice process advising (Perez 12). Addressing these flaws in the institutional mechanisms could help improve diversity in these schools. The Department of Education should make a more concerted effort to print and distribute information that is accessible and concise for parents and students as well as properly train middle school guidance counselors and consider having specific support staff available to lead more frequent workshops on the choice process.
Fixing Identity Perceptions
The educational choice process, due to its consumptive nature, “operates as much in the realm of symbols, emotions, and ideas as it does in the realm of ‘objective’ information,” meaning that the images associated with schools become internalized as part of one’s identity (Cucchiara 123). However, the specialized high school system is often labeled by Black and Latino parents and students as being only for White and Asian students because of the schools are assumed to be strictly STEM focus. Black and Latino communities perpetuate the myth that these students would inherently be uncomfortable in a specialized high school community because “you have to be Chinese or Indian to get in there” (Santos). Black and Latino children and parents are constantly under the impression that these students cannot do math and science and thus eschew the specialized high schools because there is the fear that the STEM focus is very strong (Santos). In actuality, there are a variety of specialized high school themes and not all of them are STEM-focused, which makes it unclear as to why the phenomenon of assuming them to all be STEM exists. Even so the curriculum at STEM-themed specialized high schools is not solely STEM. Perhaps these schools can remove the stigma associated with them by discarding the “specialized high school” label. The term communicates very little to prospective parents and students about the type of experience one should expect beyond the assumption that themes at these schools are perhaps stronger than themes at traditional public schools.
School choice in New York City is a competition for survival that puts low-income Black and Latino families at a severe disadvantage. As efficient as algorithms and market models are in facilitating the mechanisms of choice, they counter efforts at creating equitable and diverse learning experiences for students. Under-served populations must be prioritized and provided with the information that gives them the power to truly shape their enrollment patterns.
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