Culture & Society

As Equity Replaces Merit at Elite Test-In Schools, Different Students Are Left Behind

Districts are loosening admission standards in search of fairness, but that goal remains elusive

Image Credit: Will & Deni McIntyre/Getty Images

An anguished mother called in to the regular Zoom meeting of the Jersey City, New Jersey, school board this summer. She implored the members and administrators to reconsider the decision that was keeping her son, Nicholas (an honor roll student), out of the district’s accelerated academic program. She pleaded with them to recognize that he had missed the test’s cutoff by only five points, that he had practically home-schooled himself during the yearlong pandemic shutdown, and that he would face bullying at the neighborhood school where he was assigned.

This wasn’t a test-in high school she was agonizing over. It was a test-in middle school. The dirty secret of admissions to selective high schools is that the real race to enroll is often underway by the time pupils are 7 or 8 years old. Because Nicholas had attended the local elementary school assigned by ZIP code, where fewer than 30% of the students were proficient in math, he had long odds of getting onto the fast track for a premier middle school or high school.

Whether you call it a test-in, selective, screened or exam school, you likely mean one of the many high schools across the country that are under siege for what’s perceived as pushing some kids ahead at a big cost to those left behind. In response to this criticism, Lowell High School, San Francisco’s crown jewel since 1856, dropped its admissions test this year and went to a lottery system. Boston is also engulfed in a morass as it tries to guarantee places to fewer Asians and more Black and Hispanic students in its top high schools, including the Boston Latin School, which dates to 1635.

In fact, Massachusetts has mandated that all its sought-after vocational and technical schools rewrite their admissions guidelines to allow students with poor attendance or “minor” infractions to fill more seats. And the most coveted New York City high schools, which use only one test for admission, are under constant threat of reinvention. In short, schools across the U.S. are abolishing traditional, merit-based admissions criteria in favor of a subjective selection process. But does this pursuit of educational justice produce a fairer outcome?

Rejecting the Old Admissions Standards

As the country becomes obsessed with the notion of equity, school districts no longer want to give special treatment to students with stellar report cards and high test scores. Plenty of high schools no longer even crown a valedictorian for fear of offending those who came up short. It’s no longer about kids getting an equal shot, it’s about pushing the mantra that not everyone gets an equal shot.

Therefore, the pressure is on to alter the landscape. Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation helped redesign the Chicago system’s achievement-schools admissions process to account for not only the race of applicants, but also their home life through a complex system of socioeconomic tiers. His premise is that “students in the poorest parts of the city who score modestly lower on standardized tests have a lot to offer, given the obstacles they’ve had to overcome.”

Fairfax County, Virginia, with more than 188,000 students, has decided to rely less on test scores and more on a range of factors, including guaranteeing admission to students from every middle school, to fill seats at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. For U.S. News & World Report’s No. 1 ranked high school in the nation, the goal was greater diversity in the student body, and the efforts worked: The class of ninth graders starting school this month will be less Asian and more Black, white and Hispanic. Asian students will comprise 54% of the class, down from 73% a year earlier. Of course, the district is facing a lawsuit from aggrieved families who feel Asian students have been discriminated against.

As Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Jessica A. Hockett put it in their 2017 book, “Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools”: “American democracy has always contained an inherent tension—some say a contradiction—between the pursuit of greater equality and uniformity for all and the quest to maximize individual achievement and prosperity via competition and diversity.”

No matter how much school districts want to pose as egalitarian, however, kids still rarely get in without the guiding hand of someone who knows the system and how to work it. How could they not, when Fairfax’s advanced academic program begins in third grade. Parents who troll real estate websites, join Facebook discussion groups and set up standing lessons with tutors have the best chance of pushing their kids into the top schools.

Underprivileged students also have opportunities to work the system via groups such as Higher Achievement, which works with middle schoolers in Baltimore, Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and uses volunteer mentors to help kids navigate the high school application processes in those cities. (Another instance of navigating the system from my own life: I heard about a small test-in middle school in my county district from a more plugged-in friend and then applied on behalf of my son. He was accepted off the waitlist and then moved on to the associated test-in high school.)

Searching for New Criteria

School boards are under increasing pressure to reject the model of the 1.1 million-student New York City system, with its annual admissions test that gives no consideration to race, recommendations or previous academic performance. With only eight Black students making the 2021 cut out of 749 total admission offers at the vaunted Stuyvesant High School, the drumbeat gets louder in the city for quotas based on race.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose own son and daughter got accepted to selective city schools before he took office, has led a charge to diversify the student body at the city’s eight elite test-in schools. But he’s been thwarted by the New York Legislature, which mandated 50 years ago that the test remain the sole factor determining admission. The pandemic-related cancellation of the statewide standardized tests for younger students, however, allowed the mayor also to suspend screening measures such as grades and auditions at the city’s dozens of gifted-and-talented middle schools. “We believe in schools that serve all children, and a system that delivers equal opportunity to the best education possible,” then-Chancellor Richard Carranza told parents in a letter last December detailing the suspension of screened middle schools.

Parents whose children were on track for top schools felt betrayed by the decision. “It’s strictly luck. It’s no longer based on talent,” Lily Hom, a Brooklyn mom, told The New York Post when she found out her son’s A+ record won’t help him get into Mark Twain Intermediate School, a coveted gifted-and-talented middle school on Coney Island. “In my mind, this upcoming year will be a sham.”

Back in Jersey City, of the few hundred pupils in the 29,000-student district who graduate from the accelerated middle schools (failing a class can get you “exited”), about 75% make it into Ronald McNair Academic High School. Routinely ranked among the top schools in the state and country, McNair sends legions on to the Ivy League and is a major source of pride in a struggling system. For the thousands who don’t test into McNair or the highly rated Infinity Institute, there are five other secondary schools. The most fearsome have single-digit percentages of students who are proficient in math. Obtaining a transfer within the system is a challenge: The transfer request form says a request “will only be considered if it promotes desegregation in the Jersey City public schools and if there is available space.”

The school board is debating whether to tinker with the success formula for McNair, which ranks #73 on this year’s U.S. News & World Report list. Through careful culling of applications, the school is racially mixed, though Asians claim the greatest number of seats. But the number of economically disadvantaged students has been decreasing recently—down to 34.8% in 2019-20 from 44.9% a year earlier—so one faction of the school board wants to go the complex Chicago route and rework the formula to pump up that number. However, local activists and the superintendent, who is Black, argue that putting more poor kids on the rolls will mean more poor white kids will be the ones getting coveted slots. This disagreement reveals the tension within the “equity” (as opposed to the “merit”) camp.

Defining the Reasons for Test-In Schools

So what is the purpose of these selective schools? To surround the best and brightest with an atmosphere where they can thrive? To give a lifelong boost to a poor smart kid instead of a middle-class smart kid? Which students are more deserving, racial minorities or low-income white students? Which should weigh more in the decision process—race or gender? Black or white or Hispanic or Asian? And how many Asian students are too many? Should the best schools reflect the demographics of the city or of the school district?

Franklin Walker, the Jersey City superintendent, grappled with these issues during that Zoom school board meeting. To Nicholas’ mom, who begged the board to give her son a spot in the selective middle school, he said the goal of the district is “to make sure we give everyone a fair opportunity, and we’re not looking to deny anyone the opportunity to go to the best schools they can get into.” Notice the caveat: not the best school, but the best one you can get into. “The system is not perfect,” the superintendent said. “Any system we use will have some deficiencies.”

Nicholas’ mom is right to plead her son’s case. He is zoned to attend both a middle school and a high school that have math proficiency rates of *—meaning they are so low in the single digits that the state doesn’t release them publicly.

As districts nationwide fight over the admissions policies in the top schools, they should also spare a thought for the kids who are forced to attend the ones at the bottom. These students have no options, condemned to schools that fail to educate year after year. The real solution is to allow all students—not only the ones who can test into the elite schools or the ones who meet diversity quotas—the choice to find schools that work best for them.

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