School & District Management

Disparities Found in N.Y.C.'s System for Matching Students to Schools

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 26, 2013 5 min read
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The first round of this year’s high-school-match notifications in New York City’s massive, district-wide school choice process went out to students this month, sparking celebration, consternation, and a renewal of concerns about unequal access to the city’s best schools.

A duo of soon-to-be-released studies previewed March 15 at the annual Association of Education Research and Policy meeting in New Orleans finds that a majority of students—even low achievers—get their first choice of high schools under the system. But students also tend to take very different tracks through the system, depending on their academic-proficiency levels, a fact that highlights the complex roles that neighborhoods, schools, interests, and academic expectations can play in the school-selection process.

The Big Apple’s school-matching system is certainly on a New York scale, with a formula so complex that its 2003 design helped earn its creator, Alvin E. Roth, the 2012 Nobel Prize in economics. The city’s 8th graders and their families pore through a 600-page directory of profiles of more than 700 potential schools, of which they can rank up to a dozen by preference.

Authors at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, at New York University, tracked the process for 575,000 students matched in 8th grade from 2005 through 2011. Specifically, they compared the matching experience for students who had performed in the bottom 20 percent in math and English on state exams in 7th grade with those of their higher-performing classmates.

Overall, about 53 percent of students, whether high- or low-performing, got into their first-choice schools—but the students differed widely in their choices.

Fewer than a third of the low-achieving students ranked academically selective schools as their first choices. In turn, lower-achieving students were half as likely as other students to get into those schools.

Low-achieving students were less likely to rank as first choice a school rated an A or B on New York City’s school-quality system, and nearly twice as likely to choose one graded C, D, or F. The first-choice schools of students in the bottom 20 percent in math and language arts achievement also had 10-percentage-point lower average graduation rates than the first-choice schools of higher-achieving students, 68 percent versus 78 percent.

“The gaps between everybody’s first-choice schools and the schools where they are matched are about the same, but the starting points for low-achieving students are much lower,” said Lori Nathason, a research associate at the research alliance, who spoke about the study at the policy conference.

Elite Pathways

Running parallel to the general high-school-matching process in New York City is a separate admissions process for nine specialized high schools, considered the most selective and sought-after in the 1.1 million-student district, including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School.

With the exception of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, known as LaGuardia Arts, which uses an audition process, those schools admit students based on their performance on a specialized admission test taken in October of a student’s 8th grade year.

Last fall, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit charging that using the test alone for admission discriminates against black and Hispanic students.

But the New York University research suggests that there may be other factors at play as well.

“So much focus has been on just the test itself,” said Sean P. Corcoran, an associate professor of educational economics at NYU, who led the project. “We see it as a much more complicated pipeline than just who scored higher on the test than everybody else."Of the 575,000 8th graders matched in the city from 2005 to 2011, 175,000 sat for the exam and applied to at least one of the specialized schools, the researchers found in one of the studies.

Each year, about 20 percent of the applicants received an offer from at least one specialized school, though individual schools had different offer rates. Stuyvesant, for example, gave offers to only about 5 percent of all students in the citywide pool.

The researchers found major gaps between different student groups all along the admissions pipeline to the specialized schools, including:

• Students in poverty make up half the applicants to specialized schools, but only 35 percent of those who get an offer.

• Spanish-speaking students make up 28 percent of the citywide pool of students, and Chinese-speaking students make up 5 percent; but while Chinese-speaking students received 28 percent of admissions offers to specialized schools, Spanish-speaking students received 5 percent.

• Though a student’s middle school is not taken into account in the admissions process, 15 percent of New York middle schools accounted for 85 percent of the offers.

Three out of four students who get an offer to a specialized high school accept, but even here there are discrepancies, the researchers found.

Girls are less likely than boys to accept an offer. Black students are 12 percent more likely than white students to accept a slot—though white students vastly outnumber black students in getting offers.

Problems in the Middle?

The dramatic overrepresentation of a handful of middle schools might highlight part of the problem, according to Leanna Stiefel, an NYU economics professor who was not involved in the studies. The specialized admissions test is taken near the beginning of 8th grade, so students have to be aware of the exam and learn the subject matter covered early in middle school, she said.

Christine Baker-Smith, a predoctoral-training fellow at NYU and a co-author of the study on the specialized high schools, said that all students given offers to the schools had language and math scores above the median in 7th grade, but that many who applied did not.

“There’s a real divergence here in pathways,” Ms. Baker-Smith said. “There’s a good number of students who apply who are nowhere near the median score on their English/language arts scores. There are a good chunk of students who are applying with absolutely no chance of getting in. Do they know their chances?”

Recent research by Harvard University economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. and others has suggested that borderline students fare no worse for not getting accepted to the most elite high schools, but Ms. Steifel said admission to a top school can carry benefits far beyond grades.

“I see on résumés around New York that people list these high schools,” Ms. Stiefel said. “There’s definitely a sense of bragging rights.”

The study, “High School Choice in New York City: A Report on the School Choices and Placements of Academically At-Risk Students,” will be released by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools in the next month.
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. System School-Match Gaps Tracked

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