In the News: The Messy Matter of “Screened” High Schools in New York City

bookjacketWith news out today that the NAACP intends to ” file a complaint on Thursday over the admissions test at New York City’s specialized high schools, among the nation’s most elite public schools, citing effective discrimination against black and Latino students,” education experts Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett are poised to offer key insight into the “messy matter” of  exam-based admissions at selective schools in New York City.


Finn and Hockett conducted the first-ever study of selective public high schools, the so-called “exam schools” and their findings are essential background for anyone interested in learning more about the NAACP complaint.


Here we present several key excerpts from their book Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools as well as some info graphics comparing the demographics at public high schools and selective public high schools across the nation and for New York City.


Graphic: The Demographics of Public and Selective Public High Schools


Excerpt 1: The Messy Matter of “Screened” High Schools in New York City


New York’s high school landscape presented a unique challenge for our list. The city uses a complex application-and-placement system for all of its 600+ high school programs, and hundreds of those programs (and entire schools) are “screened,” meaning that those running them set various criteria or preconditions for admission to them. Sometimes those criteria involve prior academic accomplishment, but such prerequisites are set at various levels. About 75 such programs technically meet all six of our criteria, but in many cases their academic bar is set low. To make sure that our list was not overwhelmed by the largest city in the country—and to make sure that we identified within that city the schools that are its most academically selective—we included only those screened schools that require applicants to have minimum scores of 85 percent on the state assessments. This yielded fifteen “screened” high schools, in addition to the city’s eight specialized high schools that base their admission entirely on scores on their own separate test.


Excerpt 2: The Admissions Maze

Despite tight quarters in a city where space is always hard to come by, Townsend Harris High School [in Queens, for example], is flooded with eager applicants (about 5,000 for 270 9th-grade openings), of whom many (around 1,200) meet it’s very demanding threshold requirements for admission. THHS does not, however, control its own admissions—though it wields considerable influence over who ends up enrolling.

Since 2004, New York City’s method for matching 8th graders with places in the system’s 650-odd high school programs in almost 400 buildings has been, in its way, rational and generally fair, but it’s also seriously complicated. It’s intended to foster school choice on a citywide basis and to minimize “gaming” and influence peddling en route into Gotham’s competitive-admission schools and programs.

Unless they want to attend one of the city’s twenty-some charter high schools or its myriad private and parochial schools, every 8th grader in New York must pass through a centralized placement system before landing somewhere for 9th grade. There’s no longer an automatic de- fault into a “zoned” or neighborhood high school.

Modeled on the medical field’s “match” procedure for placing newly minted doctors in residency programs in specialties of their choice, the New York system asks every 8th grader to list twelve high school pro- grams in order of preference. Many of these are open to all comers and listing one of them as top choice pretty much guarantees entry into it. But hundreds of programs and schools (including Townsend Harris) are “screened,” meaning that those running such a school or program establish its admission prerequisites and then rank their (eligible) applicants in order of the school’s preference, based on its own distinctive criteria.  The school doesn’t know where the applicant ranked it, and the applicant doesn’t know where the “screened” school to which he/ she applied ranked him/her. Then the “big computer in the sky” seeks to match students with programs in order of each’s preference for the other. After all this, the student receives a single placement.

This works pretty well for most kids. City data indicate that some 83 percent of applicants (for 2011–12 high school entry) got one of their top five choices and another 9 percent got one of their other choices. But, for  a host  of reasons,  almost  one-tenth of 8th  graders  fail to “match”  anywhere during  the main  selection  cycle and must  present themselves in person to arrange individual placements—rarely into desirable screened programs—by  the Education Department’s Office of Student Enrollment.

High-demand academic schools face a different  problem—and  complicating wrinkle—namely,  that  the city also operates what  amounts to a parallel  admissions process  for nine  of its most competitive  high schools, including  the illustrious  original big three: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. These plus five newer academic high schools have their admissions determined strictly by student scores on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), which some 28,000 youngsters take each year and for which many eager families spend serious money to “prep” their children, as if for the SAT. These Specialized High Schools have statutory protection—indeed, a legislative mandate— to admit pupils solely on the basis of [this] special test (though LaGuardia also requires auditions). The relevant amendment to the New York State Education Code dates to 1971, when there were demands to do away with these “elitist” institutions and their “culturally biased” entrance exam. Two Bronx legislators managed to get enacted a bill that says “Admission to [these schools] shall be solely and exclusively by taking a competitive, objective and scholastic achievement examination…. No candidate may be admitted to a special high school unless he [sic] has successfully achieved a score above the cut- off score for the openings in the school for which he has taken the examination.” The political trade- off was creation of a “Discovery Program” to assist disadvantaged and minority youngsters to prepare for the competitive exam, although that program seems to have fallen by the wayside. [Still] this separate admissions system enables students to apply to both the test-based  schools and the regular 600+ high school programs, and it’s possible to end up being matched with one of each.

That’s what happens to many THHS applicants, which is why this school’s “yield”—those who actually enroll there—is about half of the 600 or so kids who are matched to it. The other half wind up attending one of the “exam” schools or a private school. The reason, of course, is that Townsend Harris’s applicant pool contains many of the same kids who are applying, and often getting admitted, to Stuyvesant and the other “exam” schools.


© 2012 by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved.



Exam Schools
Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools

Chester E. Finn, Jr. & Jessica A. Hockett

“Could, and should . . . academically selective public high schools play a more expansive role in educating the nation’s high-potential, high-achieving students[?] These are some of the questions that longtime education pundit Checker Finn, joined by educational consultant Jessica Hockett, set out to answer in their book.”–Erik Robelen, Education Week

“[E]ye-opening . . .”–Jay Mathews, Washington Post