How New York City’s School Screening Algorithms Cement Segregation Across America’s Largest District
The following story was originally published on March 10 by THE CITY, produced in collaboration with The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates the impact of technology on society.
Every school day, students from the John Jay Educational Campus gather outside their sturdy brick building in Brooklyn. They pass through a metal detector before heading to their classes on the four floors inside.
Isa Grumbach-Bloom attends classes at Millennium Brooklyn High School on the third floor. Hajar Bouchour has been learning remotely for a year, but when she is on campus, she walks up to the fourth floor, where Park Slope Collegiate is located.
Although these students share the same building, their educational experiences can be vastly different. Millennium has been consistently rated "excellent" across various metrics set by the city, making it one of the top schools in the borough. Park Slope, on the other hand, usually receives "good" ratings and occasionally only "fair" for some metrics.
The factors that determine why students end up in one school over another can be somewhat mysterious. More than 100 high schools in the city utilize "screening" algorithms to customize their admission processes, often considering variables like test scores, attendance, and behavioral records that disproportionately impact students of color. Millennium chooses to use screening to select its students, while Park Slope’s high school program does not.
Bouchour, a sophomore at Park Slope and of North African Arab heritage, applied for admission to Millennium Brooklyn but was not accepted. She didn’t understand why, speculating that it may be due to the week of school she missed in seventh grade because of the flu. "They don’t actually provide a reason for not accepting you," she stated. "They just don’t."
Both students couldn’t help but notice the significant number of white students on one floor and the larger representation of students of color on the other floors. In the 2019-20 school year, Park Slope had a 10% white student population compared to Millennium’s 46%. Grumbach-Bloom, who is white, expressed her desire for a more diverse group of students in her classes, even though she enjoys most of them.
Most media attention has focused on a handful of "specialized" high schools in the city that admit students based on the results of a single test, the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), and have historically had low enrollment of Black and Latino students. This has prompted calls to consider additional factors when assessing students’ applications to these schools. However, the issue extends to many screened high schools throughout the city, as they also present apparent barriers for students of color.
New admissions data obtained by The Markup and THE CITY reveals how Black and Latino students are consistently screened out of high schools across New York City, particularly the top-performing schools. Even though Black and Latino students apply for admission to these schools, they have significantly lower admission rates compared to white students and students of Asian descent.
The Markup and THE CITY do not have access to data on students’ test scores, grades, attendance, and other academic measures used to assess their qualifications for admission in each school. However, the admission rates clearly indicate racial disparities.
For instance, at Millennium Brooklyn, which consistently ranks "far above average" across multiple metrics used by the school system to measure success, Black students accounted for 24% of the over 5,700 applicants in the 2020 admissions cycle, but less than 10% of those applicants were ultimately admitted. On the other hand, white students made up 23% of the applicants but received more than 34% of the offers. This disparity is evident across the top high schools in the city.
At Millennium Brooklyn, there is a significant disparity between the number of applications and offers for Black and Latino students.
The school that a student is accepted into can have a significant impact on the resources available to them and can set them on a different academic path.
Bouchour couldn’t help but notice the numerous benefits that Millennium offered in their course catalog. "I noticed that they had a wide range of AP classes, as well as a photography class and other interesting options. I was amazed and thought, ‘That would be so cool!’ But then I realized that our school didn’t offer those opportunities."
After years, the schools within the building recently decided to merge their athletics programs. Millennium Brooklyn’s program was previously four times larger than the other schools’.
Due to the pandemic, the city has made some changes to the admissions process for the next school year. They have reduced the use of certain criteria and improved transparency. However, experts argue that these changes are not enough to address the systemic racism present in the system.
"We are continuously working to remove barriers and create a more equitable school system. We are always exploring ways to build upon the positive results we have seen so far," said Katie O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the NYC Department of Education (DOE). "The recent changes to admissions are driven by the best interests of our students. While we acknowledge that more work needs to be done, we are committed to bringing about real and lasting change in our public schools."
Johanna Miller, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, stated that school screening has become a form of segregation that extends beyond education. However, she believes that the city has the power to change this. "It is the main issue that we, as a city, need to address," she explained. "In our opinion, it is also the most fundamentally flawed policy choice that the city has made."
A report from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2014 revealed that New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country. Since then, the city has been searching for answers as to how this situation became so dire.
Like many other cities in the United States, New York has a long history of residential segregation that contributes to this issue. However, one significant factor that stands out is the rigorous admission process for public high schools.
The 2021 high school admissions guide for New York City is nearly 500 pages long, highlighting the extensive nature of the admissions process. Schools have significant discretion in making decisions about admissions, making it difficult for families to find and understand the specific requirements for each school. A study conducted by Fordham Law School in 2019 found that out of 157 screened programs, only 20 schools provided the exact admissions criteria after extensive research and direct contact with the schools.
"There is no set formula that schools across the city use to rank students in the screened and audition programs," explained Sean Corcoran, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied admissions data in New York City schools for years. "Each school has its own unique criteria, which makes it difficult to determine what happens behind the scenes in these screening programs."
During the application process, students rank up to 12 schools and the computer system matches them accordingly. Each school may use a different formula to rank students, with variables such as test scores, grades, and attendance playing a role. However, the weight given to each variable can vary significantly. Some screening methods have strict requirements, such as high test scores, consistent attendance, and excellent grades. On the other hand, some screens are seen as less meaningful, as they may admit students with low grades or below-grade-level test scores. More specialized screens, such as auditions for arts-focused schools, are generally less controversial.
Several studies and reports have examined whether screening disproportionately disadvantages students of color compared to other selection methods. A local student advocacy group, Teens Take Charge, published data as part of a civil rights complaint to the U.S. Department of Education, shedding light on admissions rates and screening practices in the city.
The Markup and THE CITY collaborated to determine the exact number of students who were excluded from each school due to the screening system and identify the areas with the most significant disparities.
To ensure student privacy, certain parts of the dataset that contained a small number of students were removed. Additionally, the dataset did not include racial data for applicants from private schools. While there are many more schools beyond the 75 that were analyzed, some select students using a screening process while others do not. However, our analysis solely focused on schools that completely screened their students in order to examine the effects of screening.
We also examined recent achievement metrics for each school using data from New York City schools. We found that screened schools with high rankings in metrics such as graduation rates, access to advanced courses, and math and English test scores were more likely to use a screening process that disproportionately accepted White or Asian students.
Let’s consider the Scholars’ Academy in Queens, which is a highly ranked school that stood out in the data due to discrepancies in admissions. Approximately 300 White students applied, of which 103 were accepted, resulting in an acceptance rate of around 35%. In contrast, 315 Black students applied, but only 25 received offers, leading to an acceptance rate of about 8%.
Despite reaching out, the principal of Scholars’ Academy did not respond to our request for comment.
Within Scholars’ Academy in Queens, White students had a much higher rate of acceptance compared to other racial groups.
If you are unable to view the graphic, you can click here.
The authority to decide whether schools can use screening methods or only specific types of screens lies with the mayor’s office. Currently, schools have been given significant discretion regarding the design of their screening processes.
O’Hanlon, the spokesperson for the Department of Education, informed The Markup that the city has prioritized community engagement, including disadvantaged families, in order to establish a fairer process. However, the data indicates that engagement alone may have its limitations. When compared to other racial groups, a similar number of Black and Latino students applied to the high-performing schools we examined. However, they were less likely to be accepted.
O’Hanlon also highlighted that the city and state have provided funding to some districts to develop diversity initiatives. The city’s "Diversity in Admissions" program, in which schools pledge to give priority to disadvantaged students, includes over 100 schools. However, according to city data, only 10 out of the 75 screened schools we analyzed were part of the program during the fall 2020 admissions.
Supporters of the current system argue that the algorithms used merely measure academic ability. However, proponents of reform claim that families with greater resources are better equipped to navigate the entire admissions process. They have the means to hire tutors, receive test preparation, network to learn about top schools’ admissions requirements, and ensure their children arrive on time.
Many of the admissions criteria are beyond a student’s control. Until this year, if a student lived in a different district but wanted to attend a highly ranked school in a predominantly White neighborhood, they might have faced the obstacle of geographic preferencing, which prioritizes certain students for admission based on their location. Additionally, Black and Latino students are more likely to experience chronic health conditions that could impact their middle school attendance records. Advocates argue that other screening factors, such as behavioral records, also tend to be biased against students of color.
It is important to note that the screening system did not introduce racial segregation into schools in the city. Segregation was already prevalent in schools prior to the implementation of the system. However, screening has further divided students based on their academic records and created new barriers that reinforce the existing racially divided system.
Matt Gonzales, director of the Integration and Innovation Initiative at New York University’s Metro Center, explains that the legacy of racist housing policies laid the foundation for segregation. He believes that school admissions policies, particularly ones that are egregiously racist, uphold, reinforce, and replicate patterns of segregation.
While this system does not guarantee that certain students will not succeed, it effectively puts obstacles in their way.
Removing the "Low-Hanging Fruit" of Racial Discrimination
Towards the end of last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced changes to the screening system in the city. Middle schools would temporarily halt the use of screens for the upcoming school year and re-evaluate for the following year. Additionally, all high schools would permanently eliminate the use of geographic preferencing, which disproportionately excludes students of color from schools in predominantly White areas.
In the fall of 2020, the school provided slots for 345 students. Despite the fact that 26% of the applicants were Latino, less than 5% of the offers went to those students. The exact number of Latino students who were accepted was withheld in order to protect their privacy, according to the Department of Education.
The principal of Eleanor Roosevelt High School did not respond to a request for comment.
A student passes by Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the Upper East Side on May 24, 2021. (Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY)
However, high schools will still be able to use other screening metrics.
There will also be increased transparency, as schools are now required to publish their screening requirements on a centralized city website.
"Removing geographic barriers was an easy first step," Miller said. "But we believe that public schools should be accessible to all, regardless of scale, and that they should provide the best resources and support."
"We don’t think that the best schools should be limited to certain individuals," she added.
Not everyone is happy with the decision. Some parents argue that students who work hard or excel should be placed together in schools that offer advanced learning opportunities. After the announcement, a parent advocate told the New York Post that there was a sense that academic excellence was not a priority and that the focus was more on appearances.
The decision was largely influenced by the pandemic, which led schools to temporarily abandon measures of success like test scores and attendance. Depending on one’s perspective, this forced school officials to revamp the system or provided them with a politically viable reason to do so.
When announcing the changes, Richard Carranza, the former schools chancellor under de Blasio, stated that the plan aimed to "address the current circumstances caused by the pandemic." It was particularly difficult to screen middle school students based on attendance and grades during a pandemic, especially when state tests were canceled for the year. "We had to redefine public education in the nation’s largest school system, from how we attend classes to grading policies, attendance, and everything in between," he explained.
There have been some signs of progress. Recent data released by the city indicated that low-income students were receiving more offers from competitive middle schools compared to previous years.
The Department of Education stated in an email that the removal of geographic barriers made a significant difference at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. More than 60% of the offers were given to students from outside of District 2, compared to just 1% the previous year.
Admissions for students eligible for free and reduced lunch also tripled from 16% to 60% this year. This may be partly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt’s participation in the Diversity in Admissions program, which prioritized these students for 38% of the offers.
The city has not yet released racial data for the schools this year.
The lasting impact of these changes may depend on the outcome of the mayoral election, which will determine who holds authority over school screening policies.
"This administration is on its way out, so they essentially passed the baton to the next administration and said, ‘We’ll pause for a year and let whoever comes in figure it out,’" Gonzales commented.
The data obtained by The Markup shows how many students were ultimately rejected by the system. However, it does not reveal how many students felt like they didn’t belong, even if they succeeded.
Stephanie Chapman, an Afro-Latina high school junior from the Bronx, attended a middle school in a low-income neighborhood with limited funding. "Our school was literally half a floor," she said.
When it came time to choose a high school, she decided to take the SHSAT exam for entrance into one of the elite specialized schools. Although she received a seat at one of these schools, she felt like an imposter due to her background. "I just didn’t want to go because I felt imposter syndrome," she explained. "I felt like I didn’t deserve to go."
Instead, she chose to attend Bard High School Early College Queens, a screened school that has been a great fit for her. She’s now on her way to earning a college associate’s degree, and the faculty goes above and beyond to support students in any way they can.
The principal of Bard Queens did not provide a response when asked for a comment.
Bouchour, a student at Park Slope Collegiate, expressed that not everyone excels at taking tests or performing well in interviews, and not everyone has equal access to opportunities. They believe that it is unjust to judge someone solely based on these factors without knowing anything about their personal background or story.
Explore our investigation into the admissions process of New York City high schools.
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