Wednesday, October 17, 2007

When a Lottery is Not a Lottery II: The NYC Small Schools

I received a number of emails last week in response to my post comparing Evander Childs High School and the new small schools in the same building, which found that the small schools enrolled a very different group of kids. The most common question was how these differences were possible if these students are assigned “by lottery.”

I spent a few days looking into this question, and here’s what I learned: it’s a common misconception that the NYC small schools are admitting students by lottery. The majority of the new small schools fall under the city’s “limited unscreened” selection mechanism. Here’s how it works: as a student, I can apply to up to 12 schools; students rank these choices from 1-12. Every 8th grader applies to high school, and these applications are entered into a central database. Each school then receives a list of the students who have applied to them, but the schools do not know if the students have ranked the school 1st or 12th.

Limited unscreened schools then dichotomously rank their students (yes or no); students are chosen if the school can verify that the student is making an “informed choice” to attend the school. Students that choose the school and that are also chosen by the school are admitted in order of the students' preferences (i.e. students who ranked the school first are admitted before those who ranked the school 10th).

Schools vary in the criteria they use for verifying informed choice. Some schools require students to attend information sessions; in the past, schools have required that students attend a session with a parent or guardian, but this has now been forbidden by the Department of Education. Other schools have used “applications” that students needed to fill out to verify informed choice. For example, a New Yorker passed along the application used in the 2004-2005 school years by the network of schools affiliated with Replications, which include schools like the Frederick Douglass Academy and Mott Hall replications, which are "limited unscreened" schools. Here are the essay questions:
1) What are three things your teachers would say about you?
2) What makes you want to attend a school that will demand your very best academically and will expect you to work harder than you probably ever have before?
3) What are five future goals you have for yourself?
4) Mention the title and authors of some books you would like to discuss during your interview.
5) What are some activities to which you belong either in school or outside of school?
In addition, until this year, all limited unscreened schools had access to individual students’ prior attendance, grades, their test scores, their date of birth, their address, their sending junior high schools, and their special education and English language learner status. Interestingly, the Department of Education did not provide this information to limited unscreened schools beginning with admission for the 9th grade class of 2007 - was this choice made because unscreened schools were using data they weren't supposed to?

What this means, however, is that the limited unscreened schools about which we’ve heard a lot of crowing had access to a great deal of students’ achievement data. Given the data I presented last week, which show large differences between large and small school incoming populations, I have a hard time believing that schools ignored these data entirely.

Certainly the formal rules of the system prohibit these schools from doing so – but how tightly was this regulated? The Department of Education could easily demonstrate that “informed choice” doesn’t limit lower-achieving students’ access to these schools by testing for differences in the mean test scores, attendance, etc of the applicants, the applicants chosen by the schools themselves, and the students who ultimately matriculate. This is a trivial (i.e. easy) analysis, and certainly something that the Department of Education needs to do if they want to maximize educational opportunity for New York City kids.

To sum up, it appears that some of these disparities are created by who applies to the small schools themselves, by who schools verify as making an “informed choice,” and potentially by these schools use of students’ achievement characteristics available through the database.


Leonie Haimson said...

you also have to look at the recruitment effort -- which is a big part of how high schools get desirable applicants.

In the PSA report, teachers praised their principals for "recruiting" higher achieving students. In past years, and perhaps still to this day, the new schools were aided by DOE -- and the fact that there were special HS fairs for the small schools to recruit students before the regular HS fairs.

New Visions also bragged at how many hundreds of students (and parents) stood in line to try to attend their informational sessions; not admitting of course that one of the reasons they were eager to apply is that the larger school was becoming even more intolerable, with programs and space taken from it, to make room for the new small schools.

Why would anyone who was alert and on top of the situation stay aboard a sinking ship?

ms. v. said...

While you're spot on about the inherent unfairness (to the schools) of this method, it still seems a hell of a lot fairer (to students) than some of the other methods that have been or are used. For example, the "8th grade guidance counselor talks to 9th grade guidance counselor method" or the "geographic preference" method (which SUCKS if you're a kid from the Bronx where the number of spots in safe & truly rigorous high school programs has been vanishingly small). I'd say the whole process is a big confusing mess. They change aspects of it almost every year, and it stays a big, confusing mess.