We are eager to work with policymakers to solve the biggest challenges in our schools. Segregation is at the top of our list.
While residential segregation poses a significant barrier to school integration at the elementary and middle school levels, high school students are not restricted by neighborhood boundaries. The city's 450+ high schools operate under an "open choice" admissions system that allows students to attend any school in the five boroughs as long as they meet the entrance requirements.
Despite this freedom of choice, segregation persists in high schools. By some measures, high schools are more segregated than elementary and middle schools. There are several reasons for this, but academic screening plays a major role.
We support Mayor de Blasio's proposal to end the specialized high schools admissions test (SHSAT) and replace it with a more equitable method that will give the top 7% of students from every middle school an automatic seat at one the city's eight specialized high schools.
The proposal draws on research from the Community Service Society of New York that shows how this proportional allotment approach would meaningfully diversify the schools (presently just 10% black and Hispanic) without sacrificing their high academic bar.
While the mayor's plan represents a significant positive step, specialized high schools make up a small fraction of the high schools in New York City. We propose two additional policy changes that will increase integration and equity across the entire high school system.
ENROLLMENT EQUITY PLAN
PROPOSAL #1: Increase transparency in the high school directory.
Publish each school's racial and socioeconomic breakdown, college readiness rate, and average SAT score.
Verify that each school's available courses and extracurricular opportunities are accurate and up-to-date.
Imagine you are in the 8th grade. You receive a 500+ page book listing all of your high school options on pages like these two below.
Based on the data here, which of these Brooklyn schools would you choose? The schools have a similar enrollment (524 vs. 587), a similar graduation rate (76% vs. 80%), a similar attendance rate (91% vs. 87%), a similar percentage of students who feel safe at school (81% vs. 83%). They both offer Spanish and three Advanced Placement courses.
What if we told you that the college readiness rate (the percentage of students who graduate prepared for college, according to City University benchmarks) at Victory Collegiate was 6% and the college readiness rate at Rachel Carson was 43%?
And that the average SAT score at Rachel Carson was 150 points higher than at Victory Collegiate.
Would that help you decide?
While affluent families often have the time and resources to do additional research and set up school visits to help their children make the best choices, low-income families often rely solely on the directory.
This was the case for Muhammad Deen, a senior at Victory Collegiate and member of Teens Take Charge, who wishes he had known more about his school's performance before he selected it.
He said that "about 70%" of the clubs and activities advertised in the directory no longer existed and that he wasn't able to take a science class as a freshman.
It's crucial that the DOE include college readiness rates; average SAT scores; updated information about clubs and activities; and other key indicators of school performance in the high school directory.
Including this data may drive down applicants at the lowest performing schools, but we believe that would force the DOE to take overdue corrective action at those schools. Because many have enrollments below 400, we suggest that, wherever possible, the DOE combine very small schools into medium-sized schools so that the schools can pool their resources and offer a wider range of classes and programs that will be attractive to high-performing students.
But these steps, on their own, are not sufficient to create an equitable high school enrollment system. Our second proposal is crucial.
PROPOSAL #2: Establish minimum academic diversity thresholds across all high schools to boost the number of students in "academically representative" schools.
By fall 2020, ensure that at least 10% and no greater than 80% of each high school's incoming freshman class passed the 7th grade state English exam, math exam or both.
By fall 2022, ensure that at least 20% and no greater than 70% of each high school's incoming freshman class passed the 7th grade state English exam, math exam or both.
She is a junior at School A, a screened school. Screened schools are allowed to create their own admissions criteria, such as interviews, portfolios, and middle school GPA requirements. Many are highly competitive and located in affluent neighborhoods. Coco chose School A over a specialized high school.
Only about 1/4 of students at School A qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Almost every student at School A enters at or above grade level in math and English, according to state exams.
He is a senior at School B, an unscreened school. Unscreened schools do not have the ability to select students based on prior grades or test scores. The least competitive unscreened schools are commonly located in poor neighborhoods and receive a very different concentration of students than screened schools.
More than 4/5 of students at School B qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Hardly any students at School B enter at or above grade level in math and English, according to state exams.
In essence, the high school admissions process leads to a triple segregation of schools by race, class and academic performance. We understood this anecdotally, but we decided to do a deeper analysis of DOE data to determine exactly how students were being sorted across the system.
When we looked at the entering ELA proficiency rate of every high school (the percentage of 9th graders who passed the 8th grade state ELA test), we quickly discovered that School A and School B were not outliers. They are the norm.
High schools where <20% of freshmen passed 8th grade state English test
High schools where >80% of freshmen passed 8th grade state English test
Citywide, about 40% of students passed the 2016 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) exam. That means, in an average high school, about 40% of students enter proficient or higher in ELA.
There aren't many "average" high schools in New York City. The proficiency level of entering freshman classes varies tremendously. At some high schools, 0% of freshmen passed the 8th grade state ELA exam. At others more than 95% of students passed.
The list below (Fig. A) displays the size and racial breakdown at each of the 24 high schools with an incoming ELA proficiency rate above 70%.
Each of these schools screens students based on prior academic performance. Just 3 of the 24 are majority black and Hispanic in a school system that is 68% black and Hispanic.
Meanwhile, at more than 140 high schools, fewer than 1 in 5 freshmen passed the 2016 8th grade state ELA exam.
Every one of the schools on the list below (Fig. B) is majority black and Hispanic.
Schools with such extreme concentrations of low-performing students are forced to devote significant resources to support remediation and are not able to offer a college preparatory curriculum.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
By reducing the academic screening and setting minimum thresholds for academic diversity, the DOE can ensure that every high school receives a more balanced mix of low-performing and high-performing students.
Doing so would help racially and socioeconomically integrate high schools and reduce costly expenditures on "Renewal" schools. There are 31 Renewal high schools. All of them have an entering proficiency rate below 20% in math, ELA or both. But the $500 million investment, which does not address enrollment patterns, has led to disappointing results.
Research shows that disrupting high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students is the quickest way to turn around school performance. Because academic outcomes correlate closely to socioeconomic status, we believe that our proposal is an effective, low-cost method for creating more positive outcomes at the lowest performing schools.
OPPORTUNITY FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
In addition to reducing the number of struggling schools and increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity, which has known cognitive and social benefits, we believe that creating more academically diverse schools will also lead to significant gains in the city's overall college readiness rate. Here's why we believe this:
Data show that 148 high schools in New York City had a college readiness rate below 20% last year. ("College readiness" is a quantitative measure defined by City University that relies on English and math graduation exam scores.) 144 of those schools also had an entering proficiency rate below 20% in math, ELA or both.
In other words, there is a strong correlation between very low entering proficiency and very low outgoing proficiency. The same is true on the upper end of the spectrum. Schools with very high entering proficiency rates also have very high outgoing proficiency rates.
But, in the middle of the spectrum, the correlation does not appear to be as strong. A number of schools with below average incoming proficiency rates have above average college readiness rates. We plan to do a deeper analysis, but our hypothesis is that a critical mass of high-performing students in New York City high schools leads to significant gains among low-performing students.
We see strong examples of schools across New York City that enroll a balanced mix of academic performers (20-50% entering proficiency) and achieve excellent college readiness rates.
Here are a few such schools, with links to the School Quality Snapshots detailing the schools' performance:
Entering ELA proficiency (22%) | College readiness rate (58%)
Entering ELA proficiency (35.6%) | College readiness rate (72%)
Entering ELA proficiency (36.5%) | College readiness rate (74%)
Entering ELA proficiency (38.5%) | College readiness rate (65%)
While we know that many variables affect a school's quality, we can no longer ignore the role of student enrollment. If you support our plan, please add your name below and share it with others on social media.
ADD YOUR NAME
Join us in calling on the Mayor and Department of Education to adopt this Enrollment Equity plan.