What Happens If NYC Eliminates Screened Schools? Amid a Pandemic and Canceled State Tests, Parents Worry About Equity in the District — and Being Locked Out of the Discussion
The initial concern among parents in New York City when the 2019-20 state tests were indefinitely postponed and numeric grades were abolished due to the coronavirus crisis was how fifth- and eighth-graders would apply to screened middle and high schools without their fourth- and seventh-grade test scores and GPAs.
Mayor Bill de Blasio responded by stating that they were not planning to return to the previous status quo and instead were seeking to implement changes that would promote equity. He also mentioned that the evaluation of screened schools was being reconsidered.
In New York City, only a few middle and high schools admit students solely based on their address. To apply to screened schools, students must rank up to 12 choices, submit grades and test scores, and sometimes, undergo additional tests, interviews, or present portfolios of previous work.
Both Mayor de Blasio and Richard Carranza, the schools chancellor, have expressed their belief that screened schools are immoral. Interestingly, this opinion emerged after both their daughters graduated from such schools. They also argue that screened admissions contribute to the segregation in NYC’s school system, which is predominantly Hispanic, black, and low-income, while the majority of students in screened schools are commonly assumed to be white, Asian, and middle-class. However, a report by The Center for New York City Affairs reveals that over half of students in academically screened public high schools are black and Hispanic, approximately 60 percent of students come from low-income households, and two-thirds of screened-admission middle schools have predominantly black and Hispanic student bodies.
NYC parents from diverse ethnic groups are convinced that de Blasio and Carranza are exploiting the pandemic as an excuse to remove grades and test scores, effectively unscreening these schools without engaging in the appropriate democratic processes or consulting with parents and students.
Advocacy groups argue that if grades and test scores are eliminated from the admissions process, schools will become more integrated, offering improved access to black, Hispanic, and low-income students who were previously underrepresented in schools dominated by white, middle-class students. They believe that white, middle-class students will willingly attend schools with low performance levels, where only a small percentage of students are performing at grade level. This is expected to equalize test scores across all NYC schools, promoting equity.
However, unless de Blasio plans to take full control of admissions and randomly assign students to schools, families will still need to rank their preferences, and schools will continue to rank their applicants.
Advocates argue against this practice as well. The Fordham Law School Feerick Center for Social Justice released a report titled "Public Schools, Public Oversight: Principles and Policy Recommendations During COVID-19 and Beyond," which proposes eliminating screening by requiring centralized offices to calculate composite admissions scores for students. Currently, many schools have the responsibility of ranking students for admission, contributing to inherent inequality in the system.
It is evident that true equality cannot be achieved as long as schools have the power to rank students, even without considering grades and test scores.
For instance, as long as district priority is in place, prestigious schools like Eleanor Roosevelt will continue to admit only students from Manhattan’s District 2, which encompasses affluent areas such as the Upper East Side, Tribeca, and Chelsea, while excluding students from nearby neighborhoods like East Harlem. Similarly, Bedford Academy will predominantly fill its seats with students from District 13 in Brooklyn Heights, leaving limited spots for applicants from low-income neighborhoods such as Brownsville.
And even if they do, what happens next? Supporters of a lottery system compared to a selective admissions process refer to the success of Brooklyn’s District 15, where all middle schools had a fair admissions process, and District 3, where 25 percent of seats in high-performing middle schools were reserved for students with low scores on state tests (1’s and 2’s), as examples to be followed by all schools.
These districts may have achieved demographic success, but is it truly a success for the students? At a Community Education Council meeting in District 3, one mother expressed her frustrations, saying, "They have no idea how to support the low-scoring kids who got into these ‘great’ schools. They don’t return my calls. They don’t have a plan for my daughter!"
Another parent shared with me, "Our teachers used to think they were amazing until they had to teach students who didn’t have prior knowledge of the material and couldn’t receive help at home or from a tutor."
So, even if we distribute the same number of failing students across more schools, the problem of failure still persists. However, by doing so, we can at least ensure that failure is distributed equitably and is easier to conceal.
Furthermore, in order for students and their families from underperforming elementary and middle schools to apply to high-performing middle or high schools, they first need to know that these schools exist. But how will they find out? The Department of Education no longer publishes paper directories; everything is online!
Wasn’t one of the main reasons for eliminating grades during remote learning to address the inequality in internet access among families? So how will the students who are supposedly going to benefit the most from unscreening even learn about the sudden availability of these schools?
Do you know who will benefit the most from unscreening? Students from well-off households who are currently earning average grades (C’s and B’s) at their "good" schools. These students, under traditional selective admissions methods, would have to compete with A students for the top spots.
Without grades, all students will be on an equal academic level, but they will still be unequal in terms of their families’ knowledge and ability to research their new options. I’ll be honest: my seventh-grader will be one of those privileged students. Her grades are good, A’s and B’s. Her test scores are satisfactory. Under normal circumstances, she would have a chance at the schools of her choice. But under these circumstances, she has the same chance as students with perfect grades and test scores. She also has me, and I know what I’m doing.
Unscreening all schools in NYC will primarily benefit parents who are knowledgeable about the process and will do very little for those who are already being underserved.
Alina Adams, a bestselling romance and mystery writer, author of "Getting Into NYC Kindergarten" and "Getting Into NYC High School," blogger at New York School Talk, and mother of three, believes that true school choice can only exist when all parents are aware of their options and know how to navigate the system. Visit her website, www.NYCSchoolSecrets.com.
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