Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 12 “Is the 7% plan feasible?”

On June 3, 2018 Mayor Bill de Blasio and then schools chancellor Richard Carranza introduced a plan for an alternative to using the SHSAT for selective high school admissions. Known to some as “The 7% plan” the idea is to phase out the SHSAT and instead make offers to the top 7% of the students at each school. Each school would rank their students by state test scores and GPA to create the rankings.

Under the current process there are certain middle schools that serve as feeders into the specialized schools. An example is The Anderson School in which 75% of their students get an offer. A Chalkbeat article explains how 25% of the specialized high school offers come from just 10 middle schools. These middle schools are generally screened middle schools that had a standardized test as part of their admissions policy so it is not surprising that this happened, but it definitely suggests that student’s destinies were established when they did or didn’t do well on an entrance exam for a screened middle school that they took during 5th grade. There has been talk of eliminating screened middle schools for many of the same reasons that there has been talk of changing the admissions policy for the specialized high schools. Getting rid of screened middle schools wouldn’t necessarily cause the demographic mix they are looking for. It is possible that the students who would have gone to those screened middle schools would end up getting into the specialized high schools later on anyway. I point this out because many people would assume that eliminating the screened middle schools would very likely change the future demographics of the specialized high schools.

So according to a presentation made by the NYC DOE, making offers to the top 7% of students at each school would change the demographics of the specialized high schools. Here is a graphic they made about this:

Though this 7% plan would not exactly match the citywide demographics, it would be closer than the current plan. So if these charts are accurate, the 7% plan would achieve the goal of getting the target demographics while not being officially an illegal quota system. This doesn’t mean that this plan wouldn’t be challenged in court anyway if the intent is to reduce the offers to one ethnic group, namely Asians.

But the problem with education policy is that many of the plans people come up with are very short sighted. Maybe they ‘fix’ one problem while causing other problems. Most teachers I know are very good at evaluating some policy proposal and looking into the future with it and knowing what new problems will be created by the proposal. This is something that many education policy makers fail to do which, for some of them, is why they couldn’t cut it in the classroom.

In the current system it is definitely true that students at a middle school are competing with one another to get into the specialized high schools. So you take a school like The Anderson School where 58 out of 76 8th graders got offers to specialized high schools recently. And while the students do compete against each other, they don’t really think of it that way because there is a chance that everyone who takes it gets in because they are really all competing against the total population. So the Anderson students can learn together and have a fun middle school experience without the pressure of ‘beating’ their fellow classmates. They can root each other on and they hope they and all their friends get into the specialized schools and that they can go there together.

So now you change the admissions to the 7% plan and now the number of offers at Anderson is capped at 5 students, maybe one student for Stuyvesant. Suddenly Anderson becomes a very different place. There is no longer a chance that everyone is going to get in to a specialized high school. Now the students have to compete for the 5 spots. These five spots are based on GPA and on state test scores so suddenly every single test and assignment becomes a ‘high stakes test’ since it could be the difference between getting an offer and not getting an offer. Now the middle school teachers have a new kind of pressure they didn’t have before. Why did my kid’s friend get a 97 on this project while my kid got a 96 on the project? Yes, I know that this happens to some extent already, but if the 7% plan were put into place, it would increase exponentially. It would make teaching middle school a pretty miserable job, actually.

OK so maybe you don’t care so much about whether the kids at Anderson have to have a less fun middle school experience or whether the teachers enjoy their jobs there — nobody forced them to go or to work there, but still it is something I think is worth thinking about.

That chart that the NYC DOE made for their presentation shows how they predict the demographics would be under the new plan based on running the numbers for a previous year. But remember that in that previous year, students and families were not making decisions based on the 7% plan being in effect. If the 7% actually went into affect, people would make different decisions. For example, maybe some students who don’t care so much about grades but know they would do well on the SHSAT would change their strategy. So without the SHSAT they would instead use the time they would have spent on the SHSAT to instead get their GPA up and to get a 97 on the project instead of a 96. So the numbers that would actually happen under the 7% plan would likely be different than the numbers from the projection based on data about students who had a different strategy for getting into the specialized high schools.

If the 7% plan were actually implemented, there is a chance that instead of sending their children to Anderson, families instead send their children to a school where they are likely to be in the top 7%. So maybe you get a situation where the top 7% of the students at any given school are likely to be Asian and you don’t ‘fix’ the ‘problem’ of too many Asians at the specialized high schools but instead you inadvertently make the middle schools less segregated. Maybe that’s a good thing. But it’s how it could play out so these are the kind of things teachers are better than policy makers and looking ahead and thinking about. (A great mathematician / writer Cathy O’Neil make the middle school argument in this piece.)

Another thing not considered in the 7% plan is whether or not the students admitted under this plan even want to attend a specialized high school. Keep in mind that half the Asian students in New York City don’t even take the SHSAT so it is not a given that everyone even wants to go to a school that may have a 90 minute commute each way and when maybe they see nothing wrong with the neighborhood school that despite the propaganda from the Charter school lobby, is not a ‘failing’ school that students are ‘trapped’ in.

The NYC DOE presents this graphic to show that the 7% plan would not mean that the specialized high schools would have to become less rigorous.

In an earlier post I argued that a major change to the admissions policy would very likely require the specialized high schools to alter their curricula — and also that this wouldn’t be the end of the world if it happens. This graphic does not change my mind on this. Getting a 94 GPA at one schools is not necessarily equivalent to getting a 94 GPA at another school. I’ve taught at different schools throughout my career and I’ve never seen grades as some kind of rigid objective thing. So if I am teaching students who are behind and I have a student who gets 100 average, well I’m going to give them a 100 because they deserve it. They should not be penalized just because they had to start from an earlier spot. And the state tests, one issue is that the state tests have been made untimed while at specialized schools there are going to be several timed tests a week so it is important that a student can do well on a timed test. I guess if you were to make the state tests timed again and recalculated the numbers on this graphic, I could change my mind on this.

In some other cities recently, other plans have actually been passed that have some things in common with the 7% plan. The Boston Latin school is one of them. There will be a system where students will be divided into eight tiers depending on their family income and students will be admitted equally among those tiers. This article explains the new policy. Another school that has changed its policy is The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. That schools (known as T.J) is a big rival of Stuyvesant when it comes to the math team competition. They got rid of the $100 application fee and made other changes, but it is hard to compare their policy with Stuyvesant since under the old policy T.J. was less than 1% economically disadvantaged while Stuyvesant is currently 40%. And with the new policy, T.J. will increase to 25% economically disadvantaged.

One of the most puzzling things about the de Blasio / Carranza 7% proposal is that there was nothing stopping them from implementing it at five of the eight specialized high schools (which account for about 40% of the students in the specialized high school system according to what I calculated but in many articles I’ve read they say that those schools only have 25% of the students). The state law applies to just the ‘big 3’ Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. The fact that they did not try to test the plan out with the schools that they could really makes me think they were not serious about the 7% plan besides saying “We tried to do something bold, but were denied.” When de Blasio was asked why not do this for the five other schools he said something like “We don’t want to do something halfway, we need to do it for all.” (Can someone find me the actual quote?) There is a chance it isn’t legal to change the policy at those other 5 schools, but there isn’t a policy against creating new schools — maybe you don’t call them specialized high schools you just call them magnet schools or something else — at which you can use something like the 7% plan.

This 7% plan makes me think that maybe an interesting compromise would be to make new specialized high schools for students who would be admitted under the 7% plan. Or if that seems like you are denying Stuyvesant to those students, why not just open up new specialized schools just for students who would have gotten into the specialized schools under the current SHSAT system. So you would have some new schools and the students who would have gone to Stuyvesant now go to some other school, call it what you want, ‘The school for kids who aced the SHSAT’ maybe. So Stuyvesant becomes the place for the top 7% plan students and the SHSAT school is available too. After a few years it would be interesting to see what happens. Would Stuyvesant still have the best math team and debate team, or would the SHSAT school? Would Ivy League schools look favorably on the SHSAT school as they do now for Stuyvesant?

So I see a lot of problems with the 7% plan. Others say that the benefits outweigh some of the issues I raised. There are just two more parts to this series. I was expecting some more attention to these posts but based on comments they have not been widely read. I spent years pondering if it was a good idea to write about this topic. I was scared to but based on the lack of attention and also lack of hate mail from some of the people who like to harass me I’ve either really bored everyone or I’ve been evenhanded. Either way, I will look forward to completing the last two posts in the next few weeks.

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5 Responses to Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 12 “Is the 7% plan feasible?”

  1. Tim says:

    You ostensibly started this series to answer the question “why are so few Black students admitted to Stuyvesant?”

    Now, twelve parts, many thousands of words, and numerous factual errors and strawman arguments later, you are actually asking readers to consider the plight of children enrolled at the Anderson School (where 2% of the students are Black), who under a 7%/25% plan might have to compete more against one another (as if they don’t compete now) and might not be able to go to the same high school (as if most of them do now), while you have continued to memory-hole and failed to spend a single word examining the unabashed racism that motivated the conceptualization and passage of Hecht-Calandra.

    I’ve seen enough.

    It’s embarrassing. And people who support the status quo are going to point to what you’ve written as being factual and dispositive—kids admitted under a different system will founder, middle school teachers engage in rampant grade inflation, etc. Heckuva job!

    It’s no doubt quite uncomfortable for someone who identifies as a liberal or progressive to work in one of these schools (and likely aspire to send children there one day) when there’s all that bad publicity around the numbers every spring. It seems like you’re writing this series to comfort yourself, not to actually examine how things ended up this way and what can be done to make it better ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  2. Lisa Smith says:

    I live in Missouri and I am reading your series. Good arguments and counter-arguments in each one. Thanks for taking the time to write these.

    Lisa Smith

  3. Stephen Ronan says:

    Your series continues fascinating and thought-provoking. I suspect it will make a lasting, useful contribution to the discussion. Thanks.

    In this piece, you write in respect to the forthcoming changes in admission to Boston Latin:
    “There will be a system where students will be divided into eight tiers depending on their family income and students will be admitted equally among those tiers.”

    If I understand correctly from materials like this:

    Click to access Exam%20School%20Policy%20July%202021.pdf

    the tiers are not based on individual students’ families’ income but rather based on the socioeconomic characteristics of the census tract in which they reside, particularly
    “percentage of persons below poverty, percent of households not occupied by the owner, percent of families headed by a single parent, percent of households where English is not the primary language spoken, and educational attainment.” Students will get additional advantage in the process if experiencing homelessness, living in the care of the state or in public housing or attending a school that on average over the past five years has had an enrollment of 40% or more economically disadvantaged students.

  4. NYC public school parent says:

    “Would Stuyvesant still have the best math team and debate team, or would the SHSAT school? Would Ivy League schools look favorably on the SHSAT school as they do now for Stuyvesant?”

    I admire all the interesting observations and ideas in this series, and the thoughtful reasoning that you include in the posts. However, I believe this entire series would be much better if you could somehow disabuse yourself of this idea of “the best”. Stuyvesant had one Regeneron Science Talent Search finalist this year, but Paul D Schreiber High School in Port Washington had 3, (despite being half the size), Ossining High School had 7, and Bronx Science an astonishing 14.

    Having “the best” math team or “the best” debate team changes from year to year. Having Science Talent Search Finalists changes from year to year. Contrary to what the US News rankings say, there is no “best” high school. This year Townsend Harris High School and Brooklyn Tech were supposedly the 2 “best” public high schools in NYC — next year it will probably be two different high schools.

    Tim has a good point that all of your posts seem to have internalized as fact that it is possible to determine “the best” students and admitting students using different methods would admit students who would founder and need extra help because they aren’t “the best”. I don’t think you realize how insulting that sounds.

    Some students at Stuyvesant struggle at physics but are excellent poets or writers. Some students who are amazingly gifted mathematicians may have more difficulty in writing classes. Most students there aren’t math geniuses, even if a small percentage likely are. Bright and motivated students cannot be stack ranked. They just can’t. I can see problems with the 7% rule, but I do think a lot could be achieved with a random lottery of all students who qualify by meeting a level of proficiency in academics. I imagine the composition of that lottery would look more like the composition of the students who choose to sit for the SHSAT than the overall student body, but that would be okay. Some ethnic groups will still be significantly overrepresented and some would still be underrepresented, but it would be a stark improvement in diversity. And more schools could be turned into specialized high schools if necessary. The same students would be in specialized high schools that are all far more diverse, and those high schools would all be considered excellent high schools the way all top colleges are considered excellent colleges. Just because US News has decided that Princeton University is “the best” does not make it so. It is simply one among many excellent colleges and universities. University of California/Berkeley provides a challenging, non-watered down curriculum to students even if it not even ranked in the top 20. I suspect Berkeley could even field a pretty good math and debate team, too. Whether or not those teams are “the best” in a given year has no impact on the excellent education students can get there.

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