Audit Finds Flaws with High School Admissions

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Qualified students may not be getting matched with competitive, screened high schools due to flaws in the Department of Education’s admissions process, according to an audit by city Comptroller and mayoral candidate John Liu.

Screened high schools are intended to provide more choices to students based on academics and interests. Applications from eighth graders are often judged based on student's final seventh grade report card grades, standardized test scores and attendance history. The screening system recently came under scrutiny when the DOE placed special needs students in screened schools even though they did not meet admissions requirements.

Out of 153 screened schools, the Comptroller's office audited five, one in each borough. It found that the DOE’s method for screening applications according to each school's criteria was often “unfair and arbitrary,” Liu said in a statement.

Eighth graders are allowed to pick up to 12 high schools, which they rank according to preference. They are then matched with schools according to an algorithm. Screened schools also have a say in ranking the applicants according to their criteria.

But the audit found some students who met the admissions criteria for screened schools were not ranked for acceptance by school officials. Conversely, some students who did not meet the admissions criteria were ranked for acceptance.

The audited schools are: Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the Bronx, Baruch College Campus High School in Manhattan, Midwood High SchoolMedical Science Institute in Brooklyn, Tottenville High School Science Institute on Staten Island, and Townsend Harris High School Intensive Academic Humanities in Queens.

The five schools received 21,315 applications for 828 seats during the 2011-2012 school year. Among those applicants, the audit found 5,702 students appeared to meet the screening criteria. But the programs ranked a total of 4,075 students. Among those students, 319 (8 percent) appear not to have met the criteria – yet 92 of them were offered seats and 60 of those students enrolled.

Meanwhile, the audit found 1,946 unranked students, many of whom actually scored better than those who were ranked.

The audit blamed several weaknesses in the application process that contribute to flaws with the matching system. Namely, the Comptroller’s office found that none of the schools documented their ranking process in writing. While general requirements for getting into each of the schools are published by the Department of Education, the specific criteria for what gets a student into the school were not written down, even for internal reference.

The Comptroller's office also found that the DOE was not maintaining sufficient records of students' applications for specific high schools, nor was it keeping records that justified why it ranked some students highly for a match and did not rank others.

Of the five screened high schools examined, Townsend Harris High School generally ranked applicants according to their stated ranking method and did not rank any students who did not meet its qualifications.

In response to the audit, the Department of Education defended its high school application system by noting that more than 75 percent of the 70,000 annual high school applicants landed in one of their top three school choices.

“This report goes out of its way to ignore the enormous strides we have made to provide information to families and implement a clear, fair high school choice process,” Devon Puglia, a spokesperson for the DOE, said in an email. “ As always, we have more work to do, and appreciate the recommendations for how to improve high school admissions."

The audit recommends better record keeping, more clear admissions requirements and departmental oversight. The DOE agreed with these and said action items to improve the application process will begin to be implemented in the 2013-2014 school year.