Equity & Diversity

Getting Into Selective High Schools: Test Scores, Race, and Income

By Catherine Gewertz — September 14, 2017 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It can be a pretty scary thing for 8th graders to figure out where they want to go to high school. In some places, including some major cities, 13-year-olds have to navigate complicated high school application processes. And often, the students who are at the greatest disadvantage in the school system are the least likely to make it through that maze, a new study shows.

In a study of Philadelphia’s 2014-15 high school choice process, the Pew Charitable Trusts found racial, ethnic and socioeconomic patterns among the students most likely to apply and get in to the city’s 21 competitive special-admission high schools. These schools set minimum test score thresholds for admittance, as well as requiring good grades and other qualifications. Some also require interviews or auditions.

A study last year explored a related aspect of high school choice. It found that if New York City students attended high-achieving middle schools, they were more likely to apply to selective high schools.

Challenges for Latino Students

In the Philadelphia study, the biggest discrepancies in high school selection showed up among Latino students. Among those with qualifying test scores, Latino students applied to selective schools less often than students of other races or ethnicities. Those who did apply were admitted at lower rates. And those who were admitted ended up attending those schools at lower rates.

Pew researchers declined to speculate on the causes of those dynamics—or any in the study—but Philadelphia community and district leaders mentioned several possible explanations for Latino students’ low participation in the high school selection process.

Latino students might be reluctant to attend schools outside their neighborhoods, especially those that require long commutes, they said. They surmised that Latino 8th graders might not feel welcome visiting special-admission high schools because so few Latinos attend them. And they wondered whether the district was reaching out enough to Latino families to engage them in the high school choice process.

In Philadelphia, students can attend one of 24 neighborhood high schools, which tend to have lower test scores, higher dropout rates and fewer college-prep courses. They can also apply online to the special-admission schools, or 121 “citywide admissions” programs, which can also be selective but tend to be less choosy. (The city has 43 charter schools, but the Pew study doesn’t include those because it focused only on schools run by the city of Philadelphia.)

Michelle Schmitt, who led the study, said that the city and school district of Philadelphia suggested that Pew explore the city’s high school choice process, and Pew thought the topic was worthy of study.

“Philadelphia’s high school application and admissions process is complex and potentially challenging for parents and students to navigate,” she said. “Our goal is to help parents and policymakers understand the process and its outcomes.”

Who Gets Accepted to Selective High Schools?

Acceptance patterns for the special-admission schools showed inequities. Among students with sufficiently high test scores, rejection rates were higher for African American and Latino students, boys, students from low-income families, and English-learners. Here’s a breakdown of the variation in rejection rates among students with test scores high enough to qualify:

  • Overall: 22 percent
  • Latino: 34 percent
  • African American: 26 percent
  • Boys: 28 percent
  • Low-income students: 27 percent
  • English-learners: 40 percent
  • Special education: 32 percent
  • White: 20 percent
  • Asian: 8 percent

Test scores play a central role in admission to Philadelphia’s most selective schools, although principals have the discretion to vary the weight they carry when they make admissions decisions. Pew researchers concluded that test scores “were a key reason for some groups’ greater success” getting into the special-admissions schools.

Test scores also put some student groups at a disadvantage as soon as they sat down to apply.

Sixty percent to 70 percent of white and Asian students had the requisite minimum test scores, Pew found, while barely one-third of black and Latino students did. Similarly, about one-third of low-income students had met the minimum test score thresholds, compared with half of the students who don’t come from low-income families.

Who Applies to Selective High Schools?

Patterns emerged, too, in which groups of eligible students chose not to apply to special-admission schools. Overall, 14 percent of students with qualifying test scores chose not to apply. Among Latinos, however, that figure was 24 percent. It was 19 percent among white students, and 12 percent among black students. Only 3 percent of qualified Asian students chose not to apply to Philadelphia’s most selective high schools.

Principals told Pew that they sometimes admitted students whose test scores were lower than the stated minimum because they had too few applicants, so they had empty seats. Pew found that this wasn’t a rare occurrence.

Twenty percent of the students who applied without the qualifying test scores were admitted to special-admission schools. Asian and white students, girls, English-learners, special education students, and students who aren’t from low-income families were more likely to be admitted under those circumstances than other students, a pattern Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. told Pew was “concerning.”

The flip side of the coin showed that 2 in 10 students with high enough test scores didn’t get in, possibly because they didn’t do well in a required interview or audition, or they had poor middle-school grades, behavior, or attendance, according to Pew.

Disproportionate Enrollments in Special-Admission High Schools

The numbers were higher for black or Latino students: 26 percent and 34 percent, respectively, had qualifying test scores but were not admitted. Boys (28 percent), low-income students (27 percent), English-learners (40 percent) and special-education students (32 percent) also were less likely to be admitted even with the requisite test scores.

With all those patterns at work, the 9th grade classes in Philadelphia’s special-admission high schools in 2015-16 didn’t reflect the district’s 9th overall grade population. Here’s how the enrollments differ:

  • African American students: 56 percent citywide, 51 special-admission schools
  • Latino students: 19 percent citywide, 12 special-admission schools
  • White students: 14 percent citywide, 16 percent special-admission schools
  • Asian students: 7 percent citywide, 17 percent special-admission schools
  • Low-income students: 60 percent citywide, 51 percent special-admission schools
  • Boys/girls: citywide, 51 percent boys and 49 percent girls; in special-admission schools, 41 percent boys and 59 percent girls

Philadelphia district leaders told Pew researchers that they believe the system is succeeding, since 73 percent of students attend a school of their choice. But they acknowledged they still have equity issues to address.

“We’ve created more options for children, and they’re taking advantage of them,” Superintendent Hite said in the report. “But we have a lot more to do when it comes to improving the options in all neighborhoods.”

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.