DOE disagrees, calls process transparent
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
City Comptroller John Liu said on Thursday that an audit found that the Department of Education’s (DOE) high school placement process was often arbitrary and unfair, denying seats in highly competitive programs to eligible students while offering seats to other students who were not.
According to the audit, almost 2,000 students applying to five of the city’s most desirable high schools were dropped from consideration, even though they met or surpassed the screening criteria.
“Our audit confirmed what many frustrated parents and students have long suspected: the City’s high school placement process is often unfair and deeply flawed,” Comptroller Liu said. “Applying to high school is an important and stressful enough experience for students and parents, and it must not be left to a sloppy and random system like the one our audit found.”
DOE, however, says transparency in high school admissions is better now than in the past. “This report goes out of its way to ignore the enormous strides we have made to provide information to families and implement a clear, fair high school choice process,” DOE spokesman David Pena told the Brooklyn Eagle on Friday.
“More than 75 percent of the 70,000 annual high school applicants land in one of their top three school choices,” he said. “You would never know it reading this report, but transparency in high school admissions has never been greater. As always, we have more work to do, and appreciate the recommendations for how to improve high school admissions.”
Comptroller Liu’s audit focused on “screened” programs, where students must meet specific requirements, such as seventh-grade report cards, standardized test scores, and attendance records. Students are then ranked by the schools based on these criteria.
Screened programs comprised a quarter of student matches in 2011 - 2012. According to Liu, screened schools are especially vulnerable to manipulation because the schools themselves establish and oversee the ranking process.
DOE does not require high schools to explain the methodologies they use to rank students. For example, Midwood HS Medical Science Institute states that students need grades of 90-100 in seventh-grade classes, but does not let applicants know that it gives the math and science grades greater weight than English and social studies grades.
The audit examined enrollment for the 2011-12 school year at five highly competitive schools: Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science (Bronx), Baruch College Campus HS (Manhattan), Midwood HS Medical Science Institute (Brooklyn), Tottenville HS Science Institute (Staten Island), and Townsend Harris HS Intensive Academic Humanities (Queens).
The five schools received 21,315 applications for 828 seats. Liu said that 5,702 students appeared to meet the screening criteria. The city’s ranking program, however, ranked only 4,075 students.
The audit found 1,946 unranked qualified students, many of whom actually scored better than those who were ranked. Additionally, 319 of the 4,075 students who the programs ranked appear not to have met the criteria. These errors were especially great at Baruch College Campus High School and Hostos-Lincoln Academy, where a respective 972 and 803 eligible students were never even considered for enrollment, and at Midwood High School, where 284 ineligible students were considered for admission.
Students can apply to up to 12 schools, which they rank in their order of preference.
Comptroller Liu’s audit also found that the five schools failed to maintain documentation explaining the rankings of certain applicants. Only one, Townsend Harris HS, provided any records documenting its decisions. The other four had not kept such records, as they are required to do by the New York State Education Department. In addition, middle schools are not keeping application records. The DOE could provide student applications for only 14 out of 150 randomly selected students.
According to Liu, DOE agreed to review the admissions practices at the four schools the audit report determined had questionable rankings, and will require high schools with screened programs to document their ranking formula and processes.