Talk to any rising sixth- or ninth-grader or their parent and they’ll tell you: navigating the public school admissions process in New York City is confusing at best, and panic-inducing at worst. Questions like “Am I zoned for this school? Do I have priority at that school? What screens or requirements exist for those schools?” show up at every turn. This patchwork of individualized policies is not confined to the eight elite specialized high schools that are frequently in the news, nor even just to high schools: approximately one-third of public middle and high schools in New York City utilize an admissions screen.

Admissions screens consider criteria such as a student’s prior state test scores, grades, attendance, punctuality, and behavior, or use auditions, interviews, or portfolios to determine who is admitted to these schools. Screens are used by middle and high schools to shape the composition of their incoming sixth- and ninth-grade classes.

The ramifications of COVID-19, however, look to throw this process into disarray. The State of New York announced the cancellation of this year’s state tests due to COVID-19, virtual learning has disrupted accurate record keeping for attendance and punctuality, and the New York City Department of Education (DOE) released guidance on a new grading policy last week that shifts away from letter grades to broader categories like “meets standards” or “needs improvement.” These moves taken in response to COVID-19 have essentially nullified the existing screening process for current fourth- and seventh-graders, who will be submitting applications for middle and high school this fall for admission in 2021–22.

In light of the disruption the crisis has wrought, how will the hundreds of screened public schools in New York City decide how they will admit students? While individual schools typically have the power to tailor their admissions screens to their own liking (which is part of what makes the entire process so confusing in the first place), the DOE will need to step in and make a clear, centralized policy in the wake of the crisis.

The only practical solution is also the fairest solution: suspend the use of screens and let students’ choices dictate where they end up for next year.

The DOE has an excellent model for suspending screens: one of its own community school districts, District 15, eliminated screens for all its middle schools last year, as part of a community-driven process, with great success. Families were spared the onerous and cumbersome process of competing for sixth grade spots and district schools enjoyed greater diversity in their incoming classes.

Suspending screens, however, might not be easy. There are likely to be those in favor of maintaining the selective admissions system.

Suspending screens, however, might not be easy. There are likely to be those in favor of maintaining the selective admissions system, even if it lacks the data required to make admissions decisions. In announcing its new grading policy last week, the DOE only committed to the elimination of attendance records as a factor in admissions, but seemingly left everything else on the table, stating, “we are in the process of developing additional guidance on admissions processes for the fall given the change to grading. Guidance will be issued after further community engagement.”

COVID-19 aside, there have been calls to reform the admissions system in New York City for many years. I would know; I spent the last year working as a special assistant to Chancellor Richard Carranza and heard the concerns of students, parents, teachers, and principals in every borough. Their worries usually overlapped: the system is too confusing, the process puts too much pressure on kids, and some aspects of the ordeal feel totally unfair.

Screens are far from the only culprit causing consternation among families applying to schools. There is a confusing array of geographic and non-geographic priorities as well as little-known quirks used by some to gain an advantage that commingle with screens to make the process convoluted and unfair. While these non-screen-based inequities deserve more attention and must be addressed in the long-term, the DOE should start by solving its short-term issue and suspend screens for the coming admissions cycle.

The Uses of Screens

Screening processes can be implemented to two dramatically different ends: either to create a setting where all admitted students already perform well academically (known as “ability grouping,” when it happens within schools or classrooms) or to create an intentionally heterogeneous environment, where there is a range of academic abilities in one setting.

Screening and sorting candidates by ability is commonly accepted in higher education. For one, students have reached adulthood by college, so separating students into tracks feels less determinative than it does for young children. Also, students pay for college, which means as consumers, they are potential customers to the colleges that are competing for their business. This results in a natural sorting mechanism, as selectivity is used as a competitive advantage in the higher education marketplace. Colleges can also produce heterogeneity in the classroom by admitting students from a broad geographic spectrum.

By contrast, historically, public K–12 education in America, as a public good, has been intended to serve all students. (An ugly history of segregation that has existed from the beginning of public schooling to this day demonstrates that public schools have not always been able to live up to that ideal.) Moreover, the wildly differential pace of child development and the unpredictability of what kind of adults children will end up becoming, make many people uncomfortable with the proposition of sorting them into tracks while they are still kids.

Nonetheless, both types of screening can be found in K–12 education in New York City. An example of a school that uses screens to siphon off high-performing students is Townsend Harris High School in Queens, where there were twenty-nine applicants for every seat last year, and 96 percent of incoming students had the highest possible score (4) on the state math exam in eighth grade. By contrast, some city schools use what is known as an “ed opt” (educational option) model, which is structured to accept students in proportion to the bell curve, where 16 percent of incoming students perform below-average, 68 percent have roughly average achievement, and 16 percent perform above average, based on their scores on the ELA portion of the seventh-grade state standardized assessment. Historically successful, these schools have struggled in the last two decades as highly selective schools have funneled away higher-performing students.

In today’s New York City, the Townsend Harris model predominates: screens are much more commonly used to create schools that separate high-performing students from all other students than to try and create an intentionally academically diverse setting.

The proliferation of screened schools that only select for high performers has meant that high-performing students are mostly concentrated in certain schools, making it very hard for all other schools to attain academic heterogeneity and diversity. There are exceptions, however. One such exception is the Academy for Careers in Television and Film in Queens, which is unscreened, highly popular, very diverse, and extremely successful.

Lessons from Research

Numerous researchers have shown that separating students by ability has deleterious effects on the learning environment, particularly for lower-performing students. Secondly, siphoning off high-performing students in some schools concentrates lower-performing students in other schools, which research has also found to be extremely harmful to students. Finally, because test scores are often correlated with race and socioeconomic status, ability grouping has the added toxic effect of segregating schools by socioeconomic status and race, thereby causing schools to lose out on all the well-documented benefits of diverse learning environments.

Finally, because test scores are often correlated with race and socioeconomic status, ability grouping has the added toxic effect of segregating schools by socioeconomic status and race.

Regardless of how screens are used, if they are to be used, then students must be sorted appropriately and fairly. The two most frequently used screening criteria are state test scores and grades. On the positive side, state test scores have the benefit of being standardized, predictable, and standards-based, with clear cutoffs and groups, which makes the data fairly easy to use and implement on a rubric. On the other hand, a student’s score on a state test is not designed to serve as a comprehensive view of a student’s ability. To the contrary, it is a snapshot of a given student’s performance on one day, tested in one modality—a written examination. State tests measure a student’s understanding of a very narrow slice of a year’s worth of state standard-based content, but we tend to overestimate the value of that information. For instance, what if an otherwise well-taught fourth-grader happened to have a bad day? Or if a child chronically underperforms on written assessments? Or if the slice of standards assessed was not heavily covered by a teacher? Finally, scores on standardized assessments are highly correlated with socioeconomic status. For these reasons and others, the state of New York actually legally prevents schools from using state test scores as a primary criteria for admission, which is why most screened schools ensure that test scores account for no more than 50 percent of the rubric score and combine them with other criteria.

The other most frequently used criterion, course grades, are potentially even less reliable than test scores. The arbitrariness of grades is evident to any student who has more than one teacher. It has also been well-documented in the literature. A meta-analysis of grading studies concluded, “One hundred years of grading research have generally confirmed large variation among teachers in the validity and reliability of grades, both in the meaning of grades and the accuracy of reporting.”

Perhaps the most controversial set of criteria employed by many screened schools are the attendance and punctuality records of students. For young students, such as those in elementary school and middle school, these criteria are much more reflective of a parent’s behavior than a child’s. The result is that children end up accountable for things that are largely out of their control, like getting to school on time when it requires a ride from a parent.

Finally, in addition to the concerns about what data is used, a lack of transparency by many screened schools in regard to their admissions rubrics raises concerns about how the data is used. A much-overlooked fact about screened schools in New York City: many schools do not make public the rubrics they use that detail what relative weight each of these criteria carries on their admissions rubric.

Why Eliminating Screens Is the Only Fair Short-Term Solution

The response to COVID-19 has compromised all the components of the screening process and thus rendered screens for the coming year impracticable. Even screens’ supporters should recognize that getting rid of them next year is the fairest option on the table.

Let’s begin with state testing. Given that no current fourth or seventh graders will receive a score this year, what could possibly replace these criteria? Some might argue for the use of the previous year’s score. However, with the use of a single data point from one sitting already pedagogically dubious, using a measurement from a full twelve months prior, when a student’s abilities could have dramatically improved (or declined) in the interim, is nonsensical. Since state testing begins in third grade, for current fourth graders, the assessment under consideration would be the first standardized state assessment they would have ever taken. Finally, what about the children of parents who opt their children out of state assessments, except in fourth and seventh grade, when scores determine admissions outcomes? (Many “opt-out” proponents are also highly concerned about their children getting into screened schools.)

Grades present an equally difficult conundrum. New grading policy aside, it is obvious that the mayhem caused by COVID-19 has not affected all New Yorkers equally. Students without quiet places to study, stable internet to rely on, or acceptable devices to use are at a gigantic disadvantage, through no fault of their own. There is no fair way to use grades from recent months. If one were to only consider pre-COVID grades, the timing would have to limit the grades to the first semester only, as there were parents keeping students home as early as February because of the threat of the virus. With state tests and attendance both out, it simply does not make sense to use a single semester’s grades as a sorting mechanism.

Finally, there is a little-known device that screened schools can (and do) employ that gives principals the power to selectively admit students in ways that have nothing to do with “merit,” by selectively issuing a ranking to some students and not to others. In these cases, schools deviate from the criteria set forth in their screen rubrics. This power opens a backdoor to unfair practices in normal times. In the event that screen criteria for next year are not eliminated but significantly pared back so that there is less information to base decisions upon, this tool that gives principals great discretion would likely be even more widely used, increasing the likelihood of unfairness.

The Likely Effects of Eliminating Screens for One Year

Eliminating screens for the coming year would bring the entire system of choice schools (as opposed to zoned schools) under a lottery-based system, where students would rank their choices and a randomized algorithm would determine their placement.

One place to look for clues as to how such a system would turn out is Brooklyn’s District 15, which did away with its middle school admissions screens last year and instituted a lottery based on the students’ school preferences for all students in the district. In addition, District 15 instituted a policy of reserving the first 52 percent of seats in each school for students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, students in temporary housing, and English-language learners (52 percent is the average of these populations in the district). The result? Dramatically more diverse schools and significantly less anxiety in a district that had been known for a cut-throat admissions season that was hard on children and parents alike. In a district that has many families of means, the middle and upper classes did not flee to private schools. In fact, none of the adverse outcomes that people commonly use to stoke fears about integration came to pass. The district is having a good year, families are happy, and schools are integrated.

The most important implication of District 15’s community-led endeavor on eliminating screens would be that schools that are not used to diversity—academic or otherwise—will have an incoming sixth- or ninth-grade class that is significantly more eclectic and heterogeneous than its other classes. And the evidence from District 15 is that the sky won’t fall. There is even the likelihood that students and their parents will prefer it.

Crises Present Opportunities to Change the System for the Better

The COVID-19 crisis has brought into plain view the inequities and shortcomings of so many of our nation’s systems, not least the educational system. But the crisis also presents the opportunity to make systems better than they were before. In the coming weeks and months, the DOE and the broader New York City community should not only do the fair thing in the short-term by suspending screens, but consider reforming the way students are admitted to New York City’s public schools in the future.

header photo: A public school stands closed in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images