New York City education officials have touted their “choice” admissions policy as breaking the connection between a child’s neighborhood and her or his educational opportunities. However, a new study is the latest to show that the choice policy is reinforcing and deepening educational disparities among city students.
In “Over the Counter, Under the Radar,” the Annenberg Institute for School Reform documents how late-enrolling students – who are overwhelmingly at-risk – are disproportionately assigned to struggling schools or schools targeted for closure or to schools with an over-concentration of high-needs students.
Under the choice policy, New York City’s high schools utilize different admissions criteria. Some use performance on state standardized tests and/or grades (“screened” schools); some give preference to students if they express an interest in the school (“limited screened” schools); and still others have a variety of admissions processes. The system lacks any controls for fairness or diversity. As a result, the assignment process has put New York’s students with the greatest needs at a distinct disadvantage.
A 2006 study by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) revealed that the admissions process results in the over-concentration of “high needs” students (students who are overage/undercredited and low-performing) in schools that are overwhelmingly minority (over 90% African American and Latino). This over-concentration drastically reduces the graduation chances of all students in the school. The DOE reconfirmed this finding in 2008. State Education Commissioner John King raised the same concern in 2011 and 2012.
Other studies have also shown that there is a lack of transparency and oversight in the high school admissions process, and that DOE fails to provide adequate information regarding the high school admissions process to students and their families.
In May 2013, city parents and community groups, represented by Education Law Center (ELC), filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The complaint charges that the over-concentration of high-needs students in predominately minority high schools disproportionately harms students of color by lowering their graduation chances. That complaint is currently under review by OCR. ELC has filed the new Annenberg Report with OCR.
The Annenberg Report shines an important spotlight on a disturbing facet of the city high school admissions process. Every year, approximately 36,000 students enroll in high schools without having participated in the ranking and assignment process. These students are overwhelmingly at-risk: recent immigrants, special needs students, recently incarcerated teens, homeless students, and students with previous school behavioral problems. Late-enrolling students, termed “over-the-counter” by DOE, are not afforded the opportunity to enroll in a “ranked” school, but instead are assigned by DOE. Moreover, the assignment criteria have not been publicly disclosed.
The Annenberg Report’s findings include:
- the higher the eighth grade scores of a school’s incoming freshmen class, the lower the assignment rate of late-enrolling students;
- struggling high schools had a population of late-enrolling students that was almost twice that of better performing schools;
- schools targeted for closure by DOE are disproportionately assigned late-enrolling students;
- higher performing schools consistently receive a small number of late-enrolling students, while certain needier schools are consistently assigned a large number of these students.
The OCR complaint filed by ELC seeks to reform the choice policy by ensuring fairness and diversity in the process. Any effective, controlled choice policy must provide parents more information and assistance, must be transparent and must set aside seats based on different characteristics of students and their families, such as ELL status, disabilities, achievement levels, and household education levels. It is also critical that late-enrolling students know which seats are available and choose from among those seats.
“The mistreatment of late-enrolling students underscores that the city’s assignment plan has none of the characteristics of a well-functioning choice policy,” said ELC attorney Wendy Lecker. “For these and countless other students, there is no choice or transparency, yet DOE has refused to take any corrective action. In order to make the high school assignment system fair for all city students, a comprehensive examination and overhaul of the high school assignment policies is urgently needed.”
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