On a recent Saturday, Michael Mascetti Executive Director of The Science School Initiative, teaching mathematics to a group of 7th graders at the Brooklyn Technical High School. He was teaching mathematics for the National Grid sponsored Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation's STEM Pipeline Program.

Adi Talwar

On a recent Saturday, Michael Mascetti Executive Director of The Science School Initiative, teaching mathematics to a group of 7th graders at the Brooklyn Technical High School.
He was teaching mathematics for the National Grid sponsored Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation's STEM Pipeline Program.

Quiet for most of the week, the nondescript brick building in Sunset Park comes alive on weekend mornings. Children pour in, packing into small, spare classrooms. In one, seventh graders discuss what constitutes formal writing. “Poetry from back when,” one boy offers. “So modern poetry isn’t formal?” teacher Stephanie Baynes asks.

This is A+ Academy, one of many weekend and late afternoon schools that have sprouted up in Asian communities around New York City. Lulu Zhou, whose family started A+, says it provides “supplemental education,” not test prep. But such schools are widely viewed as one reason so many Asians gain admission to specialized high schools, such as Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science. These eight academically elite schools choose students entirely on the basis of a multiple-choice exam. Asians account for 60 percent of the students at these schools, blacks for only 5 percent. Overall, about 16 percent of city public school students are Asian, 26 percent are black.

A+ parents focus on specialized schools, Zhou says, partly because getting admitted to other selective public high schools is so complicated. The specialized high schools, she says, are “easier to understand… There’s one test that, if you pass, you get into eight school that are among the best in the city.”

For years, a debate has swirled over whether specialized schools should expand their admissions criteria. But that discussion has largely ignored how the Department of Education (DOE) selects students for its other more than 400 high schools, a system that, as Zhou says, is anything but easy to understand.

Every school has its own rules and procedures, creating a patchwork that tends to favor children who live in certain neighborhoods, grew up in English-speaking families, attended good elementary and middle schools and, perhaps above all, have parents with the ability and the fortitude to negotiate a very complicated process.

Students “often have a more difficult time” getting into a selective high school that is not specialized—what the city calls a screened school—than a specialized high school, says Mike Mascetti, executive director of the Science Schools Initiative, which helps low-income students with high-school admissions. Take Beacon, a popular Manhattan high school that emphasizes student projects over standardized tests. With 5,596 applicants for 310 slots in 2015, it selects students on the basis of multiple criteria, including middle school grades, a portfolio of their work and interviews with current students as well as staff. “You would think a kid from East Harlem would have an easier time getting into Beacon than Stuy but that’s not necessarily the case,” Mascetti says.

“New York is unique in having this system where all the schools have different admissions procedures,” says Sean Corcoran of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, who has studied high school admissions.

Curtis Chin, who made Tested, a documentary film about high school admissions in New York, describes the process as “an obstacle course with a lot of twists and turns.” “I don’t know how parents are able to navigate all of it, particularly if you are an immigrant or a single parent or work multiple jobs,” he says.

Choosing choice

For years, most New York City teenagers went to neighborhood public schools. But during the Bloomberg administration, the city switched to a choice system, requiring everyone who wishes to attend a city public high school to apply. In the fall of eighth grade, they rank up to 12 schools they would like to attend. A mysterious process then matches students with schools, with most children ending up at the highest ranked schools that admitted them.

Schools use a variety of methods to make that match. The specialized schools, except for Fiorello LaGuardia, an arts school, use only the test. Some schools, like Beacon, rely on multiple criteria, including academics. Then there are schools that require auditions, some that basically take anyone and others that use a complicated formula designed to insure a mix of students.

While the city has many good options, it also has a lot of mediocre and even bad ones. Natalie Cox of Breakthrough New York, which works with high-potential students, says her group considers 40 of 462 high schools to have true college-preparatory programs with another 30 on the verge of being college prep.

As evidence that the system works, DOE has pointed to the high percentage of eighth graders admitted to one of their top choices. Those numbers, though, do not take into account whether children are applying to the schools that will best serve them. Experts fear they are not. A 2013 Research Alliance Report, for example, found that 53 percent of what it defined as low-achieving students were placed in their first choice school between 2007 and 2011, about the same as for other students. It also found, that the schools that those students ranked first had substantially lower graduation rates–73 percent versus 83 percent–than schools picked by stronger students.

Geography, a lack of information and resources and poor preparation in middle and high school all pose high, if not insurmountable, barriers.

In the zone

Former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein often said a student’s future should not be determined by his ZIP code, that students should not have to attend poor schools just because they are nearby.

In theory the choice system has addressed that. But some ZIP codes are more equal than others. And the most privileged ZIP codes are in Manhattan south of 97th Street. Several schools in that area give priority to students who live or attend middle school in District 2, which includes many of the city’s whitest and most affluent blocks. With large numbers of district students applying for these schools, few applicants from outside the district get in and those who live outside the borough have no chance. District 2 is the only one in the city that gives such a preference to eighth graders who live within its boundaries.

One of the most desirable District 2 schools, Eleanor Roosevelt High School, is 61 percent white and only 4 percent black. Experts disagree over how influential the District 2 priority is in shaping that student body; the school also considers grades and attracts huge numbers of applicants, so it would be difficult to get into even without the preference. But to parents in adjacent areas, the District 2 preference is, at the very least, an irritant.

The city created “ElRo,” as Eleanor Roosevelt High is known, as a neighborhood school in 2001, at a time when it was abandoning neighborhood schools elsewhere in the city. According to a New York Times account, Upper East Side politicians, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Eva Moskowitz, then the chair of the City Council Education Committee and now head of the Success Academy charter school network, “lobbied hard for the creation of the school” At the groundbreaking for the school in 2002, Moskowitz, according to a press release, hailed the schools as “a true victory for middle class parents and students of all races and ethnicities.”

“It would be naïve if we didn’t recognize there was some social and political capital involved when these schools were formed,” says Maurice Frumkin, a former DOE official who is now president of NYC Admissions Solutions, a private company that help parents with high school admissions. “DOE’s excuse for not addressing these concerns is it’s a big issue… and there’s nothing we can do about it but that’s where the political and social capital comes in.”

DOE spokesperson Harry Hartfield said in an email that the administration has “made an aggressive effort to encourage all families – no matter where they live – to apply to screened and specialized high schools, and that effort will continue. We are reviewing a variety of methods to achieve the critical goal of fostering greater diversity in our schools whether selective or not.”

The city has preserved some so-called zoned schools mostly in Queens and Staten Island. While area students do not have to attend these schools, they will be admitted to them if they apply. But tens of thousands of eighth graders have no zoned school to fall back on.

The information gap

DOE recognizes the system is complicated. To help families it publishes a high-school directory and holds an array of school fairs and information sessions. The department also says it has taken steps to make the process more transparent, requiring schools to reveal so-called rubrics explaining how they weigh the various factors they take into account for admissions decisions. In some communities, parents avidly swap tips and intelligence, and Inside Schools and other organizations try to provide parents with information.

But this information exits against a confusing backdrop, with six different selection methods encompassing schools that have dozens of children vying for every seat as well as those facilities that struggle to find anyone who wants to attend.

Overall, parents say DOE needs to do more. Many say the rubrics do not exist for many schools or are difficult to find.

“No one mentioned any such thing, and we were all over the process. I literally never heard of it,” one parent of an eighth grader says.

“Information is so decentralized and so incorrect in so many places. There’s a lot of secrecy involved, a lot of shrouded information,” says Cox. And, she believes, that hurts the students her organization works with. “College-educated parents are primed to go through this,” she says.

Almost everyone agrees few adolescents can handle this on their own. “The screened high school process … requires a pretty good amount of executive functioning. It is a very rare middle schooler who has it at that level. Some kids do, but mostly it is their parents who are competing on that skill,” one parent, who has gone through the process twice, wrote in an email.

Much of the burden to cut through the process falls on middle-school guidance counselors. But counselors can be overwhelmed leaving parents largely on their own.

“We like to think the system is fair and equitable, that everyone has equal access but that’s the furthest thing from the truth. … A lot of it can come down to the support that you’re getting,” says Frumkin.

Parents also need time. The fall calendar is packed with high-school open houses, information session and tours. For parents who can’t afford to miss work or who have other children to care for, attending all those events can be difficult. Despite that obvious obstacle, the city has a whole raft of schools that give preference to applicants who attend its information sessions.

How to screen

Whatever one thinks of the specialized high-school admission process, the test that governs admission to elite schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, at least it is objective. Because of that, its supporters see the test as evidence that if children work hard, they can get into a top school despite coming from an immigrant family where the parents work multiple jobs to earn $30,000 a year. Critics counter that relying entirely on one test is too limited and denies opportunity to thousands of smart, talented students. They have proposed a number of alternatives, including considering grades and attendance as well as the test. In other words, they advocate making the selection process for the specialized high schools similar to what already exists for the other selective schools, the so-called screened schools.

Research raises doubts about whether such a change would address the racial imbalances. Overall, Corcoran says, “a lot of these [screened] schools are a little more diverse than the top specialized schools,” and some make an effort to have a mixed student body: “They have a mission to look for diamonds in the rough.” (Officially schools are not allowed to consider race in admissions but with multiple measures they can do it surreptitiously.)

Yet many screened schools show a heavy preponderance of one ethnic group or another. A study by Corcoran and Christine Baker-Smith of the Research Alliance found that considering grades and attendance as well as the test for admissions, something akin to what many screened schools do, would increase the number of Latinos and whites admitted to the specialized schools and decrease the number of Asians. It would not increase the number of black students admitted and could even decrease it.

Some of the screened schools consider only so-called objective criteria, such as grades. Others, though, also weigh subjective criteria, such as interviews, essays and portfolio. This, some say, introduces another set of biases.

“Lower-income kids are not as good at interviewing. They’re not as used to speaking around the dinner table with well-educated adults. Particularly if English is their second language, that can be a challenge,” says Mascetti.

Laura Zingmond, senior editor of Inside Schools, notes that such requirements may favor students who went to certain middle schools. “A lot of kids don’t have anything to submit for a portfolio. They don’t go to a middle school that does projects,” she says. And while some middle schools require students to write essays, others do not.

That is another fact-of-life in the high school admissions process: Going to certain middle schools gives students a huge advantage. While figures are not available for the selective high schools, Corcoran and Baker-Smith found that, for the specialized high schools, between 2005 and 2013, 5 percent of city middle schools accounted for about 50 percent of children admitted..

And the middle schools that feed the selective high-schools aren’t necessarily the ones nearby. The study also found that, among students from the 30 schools that had the most students admitted to a specialized school, 87 percent were in a gifted-and-talented middle school or one that screened its students. Cox says many of these schools do a better job with their students than other schools. “Our kids are the top performers in their middle schools but almost all of them walk into a rigorous high school” and see other kids are better prepared,” she says.

Corcoran, though, believes that while some of these middle schools are high quality, they also have top students to begin with.

Indeed, the advantages that some middle-schoolers have at getting into the best high schools reflect privileges they gained remarkably early in their lives. A lot of the students who go to a selective middle school first attended a top elementary school or a gifted-and-talented program. And they qualified for that advantage by scoring high on a test they took when they were five years old. Although DOE says it is taking steps to expand gifted programs, there currently are none in many poorer neighborhoods. So the deck becomes stacked early in a child’s career, setting the pattern for the school he or she will attend nine years later.

“DOE needs to do its job in making sure there are programs in these districts to meet the needs of kids who want to be challenged,” Mascetti says. “It’s sad when everyone knows that the problem is and no one is willing to do anything about it.”

34 thoughts on “The Problem with NYC High-School Admissions? It’s not Just the Test

  1. While her piece is thoughtful and informative (as usual), Gail tends to obscure important distinctions between “specialized” and “screened” high schools. For example, notwithstanding the non-transparency of their admissions policies (and indeed maybe because of them), the % of Black & Hispanic children admitted to the two leading Manhattan located city-wide “screened ” schools (viz., Beacon & Bard) is approx 33.3. Thus, while this is admittedly not close to the ‘complexion’ of NYC, the schools are clearly more “diverse” than their Manhattan “specialized” brethren (aside from LaGuardia) BY FAR. Furthermore, her article does not address the diversity of certain successful ‘secondary’ schools (i.e., Grades 6-12) in Queens such as Global and Scholars Academy. Along that line, Townshand Harris (which has approximately FIVE TIMES the percentage of Black & Hispanic students that Stuyvesant does even though the ELA & Math scores of the kids they admit are virtually identical) could have been addressed too.

    Still, her piece does amply demonstrate that there is a HUGE need for better guidance counseling outside of “the nifty fifty”. That’s why the creation of “parent resource centers” championed, for example by the nascent District One diversity plan, is so urgent.

    • Let’s not distort the facts here: Both Beacon and BARD requires a face-to-face INTERVIEW so they know the race of the kid in front of them. One would have to question the make up of these multi-criteria HS if an INTERVIEW wasn’t done ?

      Regarding Townsend Harris – kids getting offers to Townsend usually are the same QUeens kids getting the optional offers to the specialized HS like Stuyvesant. The ending percentage of Blacks/Hispanics at Townsend are the ones who may not want to travel outside Queens (except for York – Queens has virtually no specialized HS seats). That’s the main reason why Townsend would end up with the same virtually identical ELA/MATH as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

  2. And the big question that I always ask is that why hasn’t the NY administration and education board not brought the other 400 schools or more up to college prep?

  3. I live near S.I. Tech, one of the specialized high schools. Hundreds of quiet well-behaved kids come and go every day. No neighborhood disruptions, no police cars out front. No cursing shrieking kids. In the afternoon two city buses pull up and the kids quietly file onboard. Compare that to the chaotic daily scene around New Dorp HS, where 11% of the students have been suspended.

  4. This is an excellent article. One relatively small change that would probably make a big difference would be to have a single, uniform application for all public high schools. Six hundred different colleges use a common application, and those colleges are all run by separate entities. In light of that, it’s hard to understand why high schools that are all run by DOE can’t also have a common application. Also, the DOE should set a few more rules about criteria that schools should not be allowed to consider. For instance, no school should be allowed to consider attendance at an open house as a plus since some families can’t attend open houses because parents have to work..

  5. Remember that the Asian kids going to Saturday schools are also disadvantaged and low income like other minority youth in the inner city. Also you can be of any culture and go to those places. When I was working in a Kumon there were kids from all different cultures.

    • Some Asian kids going to those extra schools are poor, many are not. Let’s not pretend these are all children of waiters or people working in laundries, that is nonsense.

  6. Cox says many of these schools do a better job with their students than other schools. “Our kids are the top performers in their middle schools but almost all of them walk into a rigorous high school” and see other kids are better prepared,” she says.

    This is why all schools should track students. High achieving students would be taught at a faster pace and be prepared once they get to a rigorous high school. Black children in particular suffer from not having a mentally stimulating peer group. More children would be helped with tracking than programs like Breakthough New York.

  7. my family was looking for a form yesterday and discovered an excellent service that has a searchable database . If others have been needing it too , here’s a http://goo.gl/8quF0P

  8. It’s not “choice” when only the top performing students get into good schols. That’s almost as bad as going to your nearby high school. Why can’t there be two tests: one for specialized and over for non specialized? That would make a lot more sense than the crazy process in place.

    • Peter but you just made no sense if it’s a specialized high school it’s there for people with talent and yea they have to do testing to actually get in the school, but why would you say about two test non and specialized there is only one test for specialized high schools and it seems like your saying public schools should have it to but no not true public is for the opening

  9. Even this article is wrong. It is not A+ students going to the specialized high schools. These schools openly state that prior academics don’t matter, attendance doesn’t matter, only the 150 minute test matters. A entire industry has beed created to prep kids for this test, starting as young as second grade!. Totally umreasonable, so why doesn’t the DOE get it right? The same reasom this article doesnt – figure it out!

    • I have to laugh bc I kind of agree. I don’t know much about high school admissions but my friend’s son who has very average grades, and is not stupid but not exceptionally bright either, got into Stuyvesant. True story. He goes there now and hates it bc he doesn’t love academics all that much (just not his personality) and would like a little more laid-back environment, but this is the school he got into. I know most of the kids there are very very smart, but makes me wonder how many kids are like him.

      • Stuy alum here. I can vouch for this assessment at Stuy. I found many mediocre students there who though did pass the test, were certainly not doing well in the cut-throat and high-pressure environment of that school. I was similarly unhappy being there. I wasn’t a bad student, but found many of my peers to be dull, uninteresting test-taking machines. Not a good school for independent or critical thinking unfortunately.

  10. When my parents were teenagers (1930s) you chose your HS, so my mother and her siblings went to different schools. In my day (1960s)
    you were stuck with your zoned school unless you got into a special school or gamed the system by taking a course (such as a less-popular foreign language) that wasn’t offered at your zoned school. Now we’re back to choice. Everything old is new again.

  11. Our son with 94 average didn’t get picked in any high school, now second round- no good schools. We have to appeal, dose anybody knows what is the % that we will be successful in appeal? Who should we contact with DOE? The whole family is going crazy- really don’t know what to do, and how we can get our son in to the good school – that he deserves to go to.

    • I know this post is old but I went through the same trouble as your son when I was trying to enroll in HS. I hope everything worked out for him and your family.

    • My guess is that you ranked the most competitive schools at top and they all rejected your son. Had you placed your 8-12 schools as your 1-5 schools you probably would have gotten in. We shot for the moon for middle school and got like our 9th choice. For high school we really thought about where he’d have the best shot to get in that was acceptable and got the #1 choice. We got lucky I suppose. The system is terrifying and crazy. We just happened to survive it this time.

  12. It’s sounds like the Asian kids are coming from another planet. They are as New Yorker as any kids. Why we can’t see what makes them do better. And I am sure all our children can do better if we pay enough attention to their education. Please lets not call any one by their color. Asians has fillings too.

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  14. This whole article is one excuse after another. With adults like these, who needs enemies? C’mon kids. Stop listening to these people. Most have some sort of financial incentive to peddle these SOB (tears) stories. From the paid high school placement specialist to the social justice warrior, they all tell the story from their POV. The truth is, NYC IS A WEALTHY CITY. Go to the best high school you can get into and work hard!! You may not become president of the USA or CEO of a Fortune 500, but you will be able to carve a nice and fulfilling life for yourself IF YOU WANT THAT! This article is incredibly pessimistic and the adults who are talking here don’t know how good this city has it in terms of school offerings. Do they want ME to take the test for all the underprivileged (lazy) families? How much do we need to bend over backwards for people who can’t go out and get what they want? Don’t let this negative talk get you down. It’s really not that hard. I just went through it with my son and it was sosososo easy. The public school process was super easy. We applied to specialized and screen schools. Didn’t even visit or do an orientation because my son was TOO BUSY playing a sport. They are all the same. He got into his #1 choice.

    Yes, the DOE ADMIN IS BLOATED AND STAFFED BY LAZIES. It’s PUBLIC AND ITS FREE and staffed by the cognitively challenged.
    WHAT CAN YOU DO? Put down that cake soda candy bar down, go outside for a walk and pick up a book that looks interesting to you from the free local public libraries that are all over the city. Once you are educated and grown up, come back to the DOE AND KICK OUT ALL THE LAZY DO NOTHINGS WITH LOW STANDARDS and put in the ones who pass an IQ TEST above 100 and are conscientious. In 5 years you will have the best school system. Also, don’t hire people with grotesquely long fingernails. They are afraid of hard work.

    • I object to your idea of laziness. I am an educated parent who had to go through the high school selection process a few times. It was rough each time. You seem to lack empathy for other people with different situations from yours. The system is objectively confusing and has objective, measurable obstacles for parents who cannot spend time or who are themselves wholly unfamiliar with systems like this one. In other words, it’s tilted. The school choice/Bloomberg “reforms” were meant specifically to tilt the system _less_. That clear, stated goal has not been met. Thus we say the system is failing by its own standards. Call other people lazy. I call you lucky. Try the same process you tried with your kid 100 times and see what happens. Many times your kid (SAME kid) will simply not get in anywhere. Thus the system is arbitrary and opaque, not fair, not a meritocratic one.

  15. This New York City Publuc High School application process is a failed system. My daughter is above 95% average and did not get in to any of her high school choices. It’s a sad day for my daughter and the entire family. She is emotionally wrecked and feels that she is not good enough to have a high school of her choice. She got up 5:00am for the past 4 years to take the school bus at 6:00am to commute daily to school. Such a great sacrifice for nothing. I wish to know who is responsible for the high school placement of these kids. School is suppose to be a learning institution that prepares you for the future but in this case, it’s not. This situation has created unnecessary stress for my child, giving her sleepless nights. What is the use of mental health education and counseling done in school when the source of your problem originate sfrom the school. I wish for the Mayor and all relevant authorities to reconsider this process and try to do a better job in the future. I would like to know what assurance I can give to my daughter that makes her believe that she will get in the second rounds. How is is possible that kids with a 70-80% get in a good high school and those in the top category gets no placement. The whole system is corrupt and needs to be taken care.

    • My daughter also had a 94 average and didn’t get into any of her round one choices. What’s even worse is that one of the schools on her list is also on the round two list. It’s mind boggling how they think this algorithm works so well when so many students with good scores don’t get into any good schools. She has no zoned high school (not that I want her to go to it anyway) but now how will they determine where she goes if she doesn’t get her round two choice? The guidance councilor doesn’t even know the answers to my questions when I call to ask.

  16. My heart is broken for your daughter and mine too. My daughter had an A average in the top honors class in her middle school in the 7th grade, satisfactory state test scores and she is also a very talented dancer. She was not accepted to even one school that she applied to and I don’t know what to tell her or how to explain. I reviewed the list of Round 2 schools and they are schools I would never dream of allowing my daughter to attend. This is extremely sad. I was conducting research and came across this old article. I don’t know where to turn. If anyone has any suggestions I would appreciate it. I think a good NYC public school provides excellent preparation for life. I was so looking forward to this process ending and now we are back to square one. We are a Black American and Puerto Rican family from the Bronx where quality education is so limited. I dread having to send my daughter to Catholic school but what else can be done?

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  18. The comment above about the conduct of children attending two schools in Staten Island is important and indicative of what parents value and what is driving their choices and standards. Parents don’t want to send their kids to schools with violence. They also want to avoid schools with working-class children/families. Middle-class parents desperately want to avoid the working-class. Some working-class parents see school as a way for their kids to escape their class. When I say “class” I don’t only mean wages and wealth. I also mean educational attainment. Financially poor but educated parents count as middle-class in the above comment. They are terrified of the idea of sending their kid to a place with majority working-class kids. But the outcome of sending a middle-class kid to a working-class school is unclear: it’s not necessarily the case that that child won’t go to the exact same college she would have gone to had she attended a “better” (more upscale) school. A lot of this struggle is about identity and has nothing to do with education or outcomes. Very little has to do with finding the right fit for the kid. The trouble is, most of our citizens are not middle-class, so most of our schools will never be “good” in the eyes of middle-class parents. In the past, much of this struggle was about race, and still is, but now it is tilting more toward class. What I want to know is, what happens to a child of two educated parents who send their kid to New Dorp HS? There is abundant evidence that integrating students helps the ones coming from less well educated households. Does it hurt the ones coming from educated ones, the kids whose parents are struggling to avoid integration by class at all costs? In the long run, this struggle is part of what keeps our nation among the most unequal on earth, with little class mobility, less than Europe nowadays, and much less than what even we achieved decades ago.

    • New Dorp high school is pretty middle class, I think you are pointing to the wrong example. And it actually does pretty well on state tests. And while it is reflective of Staten Island diversity (it is 52% white), not so much NYC.

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