As Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure winds to a close, his administration on Tuesday announced some policy changes to public school admissions, including a continued pause on academic “screens” for middle schools and a more standardized process for admitting students to some of the city’s selective high schools.
Education officials said the policies seek to advance equity at a time when the pandemic has thrown unprecedented obstacles in students’ paths and widened achievement gaps. But some parents said the last minute changes are driving up anxiety during an already stressful time.
Middle schools will not be using grades, scores or attendance to choose students for the 2022-2023 school year, continuing the moratorium on selective admissions for another cycle, while high school admissions will be centralized and no longer under the authority of individual schools.
The move represents another school reform launched at the end of de Blasio's term, after eight years during which city schools made little progress on battling school segregation. The changes are steps toward more inclusive admissions policies, but fall short of the broader overhaul to admissions some students and integration advocates have lobbied for vigorously during his administration.
Last December, de Blasio announced a temporary series of admissions changes - notably the pause on middle school screens - saying the pandemic made traditional screening metrics such as attendance and state test scores unusable. He said the changes would also make admissions fairer.
This year, students applying to high schools will be evaluated according to their grades from the current semester (eighth grade, fall semester) as well as essays, reports or projects, but test scores and attendance will not. Officials noted that both tests and grades were impacted by the pandemic: last year’s state tests were opt-in only, and the city adjusted grading policies to allow more flexibility during the health crisis.
However, arts schools will be able to use auditions to select students once again.
There will continue to be no district priority for students seeking admission to high schools. That follows last year’s decision to end a policy that notably gave students in predominantly affluent areas of Manhattan first dibs at some of the city’s most sought after schools. But so-called geographic priority, by borough and zone, will continue, even though the administration had said last year that geographic priority would be removed.
An education department spokesperson said the decision to maintain geographic priority was based on feedback from families. The spokesperson added that the de Blasio administration has worked with the incoming Adams administration on this year’s policies.
Student activists have been protesting selective admissions ‘screens’ for years, and filed a lawsuit alleging the policies violated students’ civil rights last fall, pointing out, “Of the 30 most academically screened high schools, 27 are majority white and Asian (in a system that’s less than one-third white and Asian).” An initiative in Brooklyn’s District 15 that barred the use of screened admissions succeeded in diversifying some middle schools. According to the education department, more students from low-income families received offers to the most sought-after middle schools last year after the selective admissions policies were put on pause.
“This administration has brought real and lasting equitable change to the admissions process that has dismantled historic barriers and opened up opportunity for more students than ever before,” Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter said in a statement. “As we continue to build back from the impacts of COVID-19, we must always put children and the best interests of our babies at the heart of all we do.”
The updated admissions policies drew mixed reactions from the teachers’ union and education advocates.
“Screens started as a way to make sure students enrolled in programs they were excited about - a way to match interests with programming. But too many became ways for schools to exclude students and limit opportunities,” said Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers union, in an emailed statement. “We remain opposed to screens that further segregate students.”
Nyah Berg, executive director of New York Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocates for integrated schools and communities, said of the policies: “They’re big changes and also the bare minimum.”
Berg said test scores and attendance have long served as barriers for English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and students from low income families seeking admission to certain city schools. “I’m happy to see those eliminated when the pandemic has only exacerbated those disparities,” she said.
But she said she was disappointed it took the mayor so long to make these changes, and she is concerned about whether they will stay in place under the incoming Adams administration.
“So many of the decisions [de Blasio] made in the 11th hour are recommendations that have been made in his entire tenure as mayor,” she said. “I hope that will be something that will be made permanent in the new administration.”
Meanwhile, families were scrambling to understand the new policies. “I am overwhelmed with parent- freaking-out emails,” said Elissa Stein, a consultant who works with parents navigating public school admissions. “It’s a very unsure footing during a very unsure, scary time.”
She said parents were especially upset about the plan to use only the fall semester marks for eighth graders applying to high schools, given the enormity of the transition back to school this year: “To have their high school trajectory based on this little snippet of time when students aren’t necessarily at their best is frustrating and overwhelming to families,” she said.
Stein said some parents are also confused about how the new centralized admissions process for high schools will work. “Not every school is the right fit for every child,” she said, adding that, until now, selective schools “had some say over finding kids who are good fits."
“What this new system is doing is taking away autonomy from schools,” Stein said.
Like last year, students will be asked to rank their middle school choices and there will be a lottery if more students apply to certain schools than seats are available. Students living in the zone will have priority at schools in their zone.
Middle school applications open the week of January 10th and are due by the last week of February. Families will receive offers in early May.
Students and families can start applying to high school the week of January 24 and the deadline to apply will be the week of February 28. Offers will be made in late May.