High School Admissions: Choice, but No Equity

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Sattin-BajajSeton Hall Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj

The roughly 65,000 students who have entered eighth grade in New York City public schools will face a formidable task in the coming months. In addition to completing homework assignments and taking tests, preparing for the dreaded state exams and meeting the city's multiple promotion requirements, all eighth-grade students who wish to attend public (non-charter) high schools in New York city must also submit applications in which they rank up to 12 programs or schools from among nearly 700 possibilities citywide.

The Department of Education uses a formula to match each student with one high school modeled after the National Resident Matching Program for American physicians. The complex algorithm combines blind student and school rankings and is supposed to achieve the twin goals of matching students with their top choices and distributing low-achieving students as evenly as possible across high schools.

With thousands of students vying for a limited supply of seats in high-performing high schools, the results do not always work out that way.

As part of a study I conducted of low-income Latino immigrant families' experiences with the admissions process, I found that the Department of Education disseminates information in ways that are not accessible to all families in New York. This raises serious questions about whether choice and equity can actually be reached in the nation’s largest school system.

The department's reliance on electronic resources and the lack of translated materials available in printed format means that people without Internet access and those who required materials in languages other than English are left with fewer official sources of information and guidance.

During the school years in which I conducted my study (2008-9 and 2009-10), the High School Directory, the most comprehensive resource on high schools in New York City, was available in printed format only in English.

While the directory had been translated into the eight most commonly spoken languages (Spanish, Haitian-Creole, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Urdu, Bengali and Arabic), the translated version was available only electronically, either on the Department of Education's Web site or through a compact disc distributed at choice events.

Despite the fact that Internet use has grown exponentially in the 21st century, it has been well documented that low-income people and those with less education tend to have lower levels of computer literacy and less-frequent Internet access.

As a result, getting even basic information about schools may have been considerably more difficult for people on the disadvantaged side of the "digital divide."

The question of families' Internet access notwithstanding, there are serious costs associated with downloading and printing a 600-page document. Yet, other than the single-page description of each high school in the directory, virtually no information about individual schools was readily accessible in printed format.

The same was true of the Learning Environment Survey, the Quality Review, Progress Report, and Annual School Report Card -- school-level reports containing more detailed information about performance and academic outcomes such as graduation rates, credit accumulation, and student proficiency on state examinations.

The Department of Education also depends heavily on third-party Web sites such as Hopstop.com or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to assist families with school choice by getting estimated travel times to different schools.

Equity in school choice begins with access, and until the Department of Education finds ways to effectively communicate with all New Yorkers, its efforts to promote educational equity through this and other policies will continue to fall short.

Editor's Note: The city's Department of Education declined invitations to respond to the study's findings.