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Especially now, public schools for all: NYC should do away with middle- and high-school admission screens

Miriam Nunberg and Toni Smith-Thompson

A pandemic, the abrupt transition to remote learning, missteps, confusion, delays, longstanding inequities. These all overshadowed the reopening of New York City’s public schools this fall. Adding to the uncertainty, the city’s Department of Education again has postponed its announcement about school admissions screening for the 2021-22 school year. This delay comes despite ample evidence that school screens violated students’ rights even before the pandemic rendered them entirely invalid.

Applicant and acceptance data recently obtained by the student advocacy group Teens Take Charge confirm that high school screening excludes Black, Hispanic and lower-income students from the city’s most resourced and prestigious public schools and programs.

The data show that acceptance rates for white students at some of these schools are up to 16 times that of students of color. Yet despite repeated calls from his own School Diversity Advisory Group, advocates, students and parents, Mayor de Blasio refuses to end this racist practice, and recently dismissed a question about inequality in the city’s schools as “cocktail party madness.”

We can assure him that there will be no cocktail parties as families without Wi-Fi, stable housing, employment or adequate access to basic educational services attempt to compete for their children’s futures. To screen under such circumstances is more than absurd: It is cruel.

The data also confirms that the extreme segregation of the city’s public middle and high schools is directly tied to screening fifth- and eighth-graders for entry using factors such as attendance, behavior records and test scores. Proponents of screening maintain it is necessary to incentivize children to work hard.

In reality though, most admissions screens reflect inequities more than achievement. Commonly used screens include behavior records and test scores, despite evidence that Black children are disciplined more harshly than similarly behaving peers, and according to some analyses, standardized tests more accurately measure access to resources than student learning. The use of public dollars by our public schools to maintain these discriminatory practices violates the civil rights of thousands of children each year.

New York City screens more children than any other U.S. school system, with significant racial impact. Black and Hispanic children comprise 66% of our public kindergartners but only 18% of students accepted into Gifted & Talented programs. Currently, 37% of middle schools use some form of competitive screening; 58% of these schools fail to reflect the makeup of their local districts. And Black and Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students comprise 66% and 70% respectively of total high school enrollment citywide, but only about 30% and 43% of the most selective high schools.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In 2018, Brooklyn’s District 15, which includes very affluent and white and less affluent and more diverse areas alike, recognized the problems with middle-school screening and implemented a districtwide lottery for all schools instead. In one year, this single measure decreased economic segregation in sixth grade by 55% and racial segregation by 38%. The white flight many predicted failed to materialize, and students across the district are having positive experiences at schools they previously never would have considered.

It is time to expand this approach citywide, especially now that the pandemic has made screening even more inequitable and educationally dubious. The current absence of the usual markers, such as test scores, attendance, behavior records or even grades, provides an opening to scrap this discriminatory practice of sorting kids and instead implement new approaches designed to dismantle the structures that reinforce segregation.

For more 50 years, New York City’s schools have catered to privileged families, prioritizing the desires of people with wealth and political influence over the needs of the collective. Practices that isolate students from resources and opportunity cannot be educationally justified in a public school system. Screening props up a separate and unequal school system and feeds the notion that justice is only important if white people want it.

De Blasio must finally do what is within his power to end the unjust cycle that has placed New York City among the most segregated districts in the country. The first step is supporting Councilman Brad Lander’s call for a citywide hold on middle-school screens for this year, replaced by the District 15 model. We also seek long-term reform to G&T admissions and programming and middle and high school screening. The city must then undertake a long-term, multipronged effort to reform the other policies that reinforce segregation and inequity in our schools.

Equal opportunity is not a matter of public opinion, it’s the law.

Nunberg is a founding member of D15 Parents for Middle School Equity and The New York City Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation and a former attorney for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Smith-Thompson is a founding member of the alliance and senior organizer at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News

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