The New York City High School Application Process: Is It Fair to Students? Can It Be Improved?

The High School Application season is upon us and Chalkbeat is hosting a drink/snack discussion on October 12th: How can the NYC high school application process be more fair? (enroll at the link here)

Let’s begin with a review: thirty years ago there were 110 comprehensive high schools and 25 vocational high schools, as a result of the Bloomberg Portfolio Management approach, “… 150 low-performing schools were closed, reconfigured, and given a fresh start; the city opened 650 new schools.” Thirty years ago the vast percentage of students attended their neighborhood zone high schools, today, there are only a handful of zoned high schools; schools and students are assigned/matched through the high school assignment algorithm.

Bloomberg/Klein envisioned a portfolio of charter, public schools and parental choice with hundreds upon hundreds of choices; the future of schools would be decided by the application process which is actually a matching process. Schools that fail to attract applicants or perform poorly will be closed and new schools created.

The key to the process is the matching process, a dense algorithm  (“game theory”) similar to the medical school candidate selection process, it was introduced in 2004, designed by three economists.

Among the many categories of schools: geographically zoned schools, schools that are screened and unscreened – screened schools require high scores on state tests, high grades in middle school or some combination, arts schools require a portfolio or an audition.  Screened schools impact unscreened schools by removing the higher achieving students from the pool. A few years ago I counted about 200 screened schools and programs.

Over the next two months 8th graders will make up to twelve choices on their high school applications.

Check out the 626 page (really!!) High School Directory here.

The Directory does a good job of explaining the incredibly dense process; however, the essential person is the school counselor, who, hopefully will guide the student and their family through the process. The opening section of the Directory does provide many suggestions on how to navigate the many, many choices and decisions.

It is extremely difficult to  make an informed selection with hundreds upon hundreds of choices and a dense mathematical formula making the ultimate selection.

Applications are due December 1, 2017.

In January schools receive the names of the applicants, with no academic info, the school “matches,” namely, selects students; the recommendation to the school is to match at least five kids for each seat. Schools “declare” the number of available seats earlier in the school year.. The school does not know where the student placed the school on the application;  remember the student selects/ranks up to twelve choices. If a student attended a school fair and signed in the school will know the names of those students.

The number of rankings per seat varies enormously, some schools barely receive one kid per seat, other receive enormous numbers. Some schools have excellent “reputations,” aka as “more kids like my kid,” while other have never developed a following. Schools spend dollars on how to “brand” their school.

In the Spring students will receive their assignment/match – about 96% of students are assigned in the first round; the unplaced students participate in a second round, with many fewer choices.

Although the Department calls the process an application process it is actually, “…a matching process designed, in the words of the three economists who developed it, to ‘relieve the congestion of the previous offer/acceptance/wait-list process’ that conferred ‘some students multiple offers’ and ‘multiple students … no offers’ (Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag A. Pathak, and Alvin E. Roth, “The New York City High School Match,” American Economic Review, July 2005).”

And, although the system is complex it does work surprisingly well, ” …72 percent of eighth-graders this year and 75 percent last year, reported the DOE, got a spot at one of their top three choices (NYC DOE, Press Release, March 8, 2017). The algorithm may be confusing but it works fairly well and far better than the process it replaced.” An April, 2017 Columbia Teacher College essay does an excellent job of correcting common misconceptions and makes a number of recommendations to improve the process.

If you want to take a deep dive into how the “deferred acceptance algorithm” actually works check out a discussion with the designers here .

The process does have flaws, and the Independent Budget Office (IBO), part of the New York City government issued a report (October, 2016) “A Look at NYC’s Public High School Choice Process”  The 11-page report summarizes the process and points to specific issues,

* Students who on average are lower achieving are routinely matched with lower performing high schools. But the prime reason for this matching is student’s own preferences – in fact, the rates for acceptance to students top choice high school programs are highest among lower achieving students applying to these programs.

* Lower achieving students first choice schools tend to be lower performing, have more disadvantaged students, and have less selective programs than the first choice of higher achieving students.

* Regardless of their own academic performance students in higher achieving middle schools tend to list higher performing high schools. In contrast , even higher achieving students in  lower performing middle schools often list lower performing high schools as their top choices.

A primary goal of the portfolio management system was to encourage students in lower performing middle schools to move on to higher achieving high schools. The marketplace would determine the success or lack thereof of schools, and, students could break the chain of being tied to neighborhoods consisting of lower achieving schools. The IBO finds low achieving students in low achieving middle schools tend to select lower achieving high schools. Is that a flaw in the system?

The report concludes,

The matching process reflects  student preferences, to a large extent these preferences as stated in students’ lists of high school program ranking, are seen to be correlated with ‘background’ characteristics, their individual achievement, and the achievement level of their peers. This in turn suggests that inasmuch as there are large scale correlations between some background characteristics of students and the characteristics of the high schools they end up being assigned to, changing the algorithmic part of the application process will not succeed in eliminating such correlations.

In other words, the system works, if there is a flaw it may be at the middle school level with the advisement process, or, a reality, kids feel “safer” with peers.

I have two questions: should all schools have distinct geographic zones as well as a process to apply for students outside the zone?  I think neighborhood schools, from K to 12, both strengthens schools and neighborhoods  by tying the schools to organizations within their communities. Second, why do we have so many screened, aka selective schools?  Under the former comprehensive high school system schools served students with a wide range of academic abilities and interests. Midwood High School today contains a selective bio-medical program was well as being a zoned school, within the Midwood structure, as does Madison, a neighboring school; both schools are well integrated by race.

I look forward to the Chalkbeat evening, we always (well, almost always) learn from each other.

3 responses to “The New York City High School Application Process: Is It Fair to Students? Can It Be Improved?

  1. seems to me that the question of ” can it be improved” is code for watering down. I do not think that the students and the families of students who study and prepare and get tutored so as to pass the admission exams would not want to see something improved that works well, and does its job.


  2. Pingback: Comments and Ideas from Schools: “Fixing” the High School Application Process | Ed In The Apple

  3. The system masks the poor choices available to poor students in poor neighborhoods. If you live in District 12 or you live in District 2, the system works quite differently.

    Not until every neighborhood has its own, reasonably good high school can a matching system possibly be fair. And this matching system was created specifically to avoid exactly that possibility.


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