The big sort

No more back-door admissions to Detroit’s most selective high schools after all students take screening exam

The Detroit school district changed its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Dramatic changes to the way Detroit’s main district decides who can get into its most selective schools meant more students were accepted from district middle schools — and no student got in without taking the entrance exam.

Those were only some of the effects of the controversial changes the district made to the exam and application process for students who want to attend Cass Technical, Renaissance, Martin Luther King Jr., and Southeastern high schools.

In Detroit, attending these schools is prestigious, giving students bragging rights to be among the ranks of celebrity alumni such as rapper Big Sean, singer Diana Ross, reality television star Kenya Moore, and former NFL player Lawrence Thomas. Admission, which requires both an exam and an application, is competitive: Among the top high schools in the state, they are sought after by eighth-graders from around the region, not just from the city.

Last year, amid patchy test-taking and an opaque selection process, just 1,607 students were offered seats at the schools through the regular application process. Only 46 percent came from district middle schools, and almost 500 additional students who had not taken the test were later offered a seat by appealing directly to the schools. (Another 179 students who took the exam also got in on appeal.)

“Often, relationships were a determining factor in admissions, not the attributes of the applicants and what they could add to the student body,” said district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson.

This year, in a bid to increase equity and give an edge to students in district middle schools, every eighth-grader in Detroit’s main district took the test and applications were scored consistently.

As a result, the schools admitted 2,858 students after the exam, filling every spot and sharply curtailing the number of students who can get in by appeal. Nearly two-thirds of the admitted students attended district middle schools.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he was pleased by the fact that all eighth-graders took the screening exam.

“One commitment we made this year was to ensure the testing of eighth-graders would happen across our district,” he said at a meeting last week. “This was about equity and access throughout our district.”

He also said efforts to improve the system would continue.

“I don’t think we’re at a point of perfection,” Vitti said. “At least we’re beginning to create structure and consistency, and we have data to track over time where the random process made it difficult to analyze.“

A consistent method for screening applications was a centerpiece of the changes. In previous years, there were no clear-cut rules for scoring applications and each school evaluated students independently.

This year, starting in March, a single team of teachers, staff, alumni, and administrators evaluated each application according to a points system.

Students could earn up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school admissions exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay, and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district also received 10 bonus points that gave them an edge over students applying from charter, parochial, and suburban schools.

The district enacted a minimum score, known as a cut score, that students had to reach to be admitted into all examination schools. In addition, because of high student demand, each school had its own cut score that exceeded the district score. About 44 percent of applicants did not meet the cut score for any school.

“By determining a cut score, the caliber of students entering the examination high schools increases,” Wilson said. “There were reports of previous years where students were admitted who were struggling with their grades, and had very low proficiency levels in the academic core.”

Not everyone was happy with how the students were selected.

Terri Berry is a Cass graduate and supporter whose daughter will be a freshman there this year. She said she’s still concerned about equity in the process.

“My concern is to make it fair for all the students who want to attend those schools,” said Berry, an officer in the Triangle Society, a Cass booster group that has objected to the changes.

Detroiter Seydi Sarr said her daughter, Hawlaane Sarr-Robins, very much hoped to attend Renaissance and anxiously took the exam last spring.

Sarr didn’t know the district was only giving bonus points to district students. Her eighth-grader at the James and Grace Lee Boggs School — a charter school — was disappointed when she heard she was put on a waitlist, her mother said.

Vitti said about 85 percent of students applying for the district’s exam schools are from Detroit.

“It’s important to note that despite students gaining entrance from outside the district, the vast majority of those students are from Detroit,” Vitti said. “We should be excited about the fact that non-[district] students are applying for our exam schools.”

The fact that the new process penalizes non-district students is a problem, said Rob Kimball, who heads the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, Detroit’s largest charter authorizer.

“All public schools in Detroit should welcome all Detroit students,” he said, adding, “We would be happy to work with [the district] on policies that embrace all Detroit kids regardless of which school they previously attended.”

But the new process has its supporters, too.

Julius Randall, 14, an incoming 10th-grader at King High School, said the new process has inspired more students to apply for the selective schools — no matter where they attend middle school.

The process also has weeded out students who were applying for the exam schools to attend with their friends, not because they were focused on academics, he said.

“If they don’t let as many kids in who are not going to do anything, or aren’t focused, they are going to have a better school.”

Another of Vitti’s objectives was to increase the number of students with special needs at the exam schools, but the district said it was so far unclear whether that goal had been reached.

“This is the first year of implementing the changes to exam schools,” Wilson said. “We will need more time to collect and analyze data.”


In most U.S. cities, neighborhoods have grown more integrated. Their schools haven’t.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Sold signs can be seen on many of the homes in Stapleton on August 1, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Between 1990 and 2015, Seattle’s neighborhoods saw a notable decline in racial segregation.

It would make sense, then, to think that the city’s public schools had also become more integrated. Not so.

In fact, they were headed in the opposite direction. In 1990, only 3 percent of schools were intensely segregated — that is, at least 90 percent of students were nonwhite — but by 2015, that number had spiked to 17 percent.

That’s not entirely surprising. During that time, a high-profile Supreme Court case made it more difficult for Seattle to integrate its schools by race. But new research looking at America’s 100 largest cities shows that the diverging trends in Seattle — neighborhoods growing more diverse, as their schools grow more segregated — is not an anomaly.

The analysis finds that, between 1990 and 2015, 72 percent of U.S. cities saw their neighborhoods grow less racially segregated, by one measure. Sixty-two percent saw their schools grow more segregated over that same period.

“There is this incredibly striking trend,” said Ryan Coughlan, a professor at Guttman Community College, CUNY, who conducted the research. “It raises all kinds of alarm bells and questions as to what that’s about.”

Most cities did not see schools segregate as much as Seattle did. And 27 cities, like Durham, North Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee, saw both their schools and neighborhoods grow less segregated in concert over that 25-year period. But overall, the study finds that integrating neighborhoods didn’t predict integrating schools in those same cities.

The analysis has significant limits, particularly when looking at single cities. It uses one of several possible ways to measure segregation: the degree to which the racial breakdown of students in individual schools or neighborhoods mirror the demographics of the rest of the district or city. In most cases, charter schools are not included. That makes the data less useful in places like Detroit, where charters now enroll half the city’s students.

The big-picture trend matters, though. More integrated schools have long been shown to improve academic outcomes for low-income students and students of color. Living in a more integrated neighborhood has also been linked to long-run benefits for younger kids.

“Because of the connections between integration and educational opportunities, the dramatic increase in school segregation alongside the decrease in neighborhood segregation requires the immediate attention of school leaders, policymakers, and the public as a whole,” Coughlan wrote.

What’s behind those trends?

The analysis, published last month in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, can’t say why that’s happening. The end of many legal desegregation orders during that time likely played a role. Coughlan also hypothesizes that the rapid increase in school choice, through charter schools and other means, had something to with it.

“These are 100 different urban areas with very different circumstances,” Coughlan said.

The paper’s starting point is 1990, before the first charter school law passed in the U.S. Since then, school choice has rapidly grown, through charters and other means.

In Seattle, though, charter schools are almost certainly not the cause of its increase in school segregation, since the city has very few.

Another city that saw a major spike in school segregation along with a modest decline in neighborhood segregation is Charlotte. Like Seattle, it’s seen a resegregation of schools in the wake of high-profile court cases.

Charlotte also has a number of charter schools; there and elsewhere in North Carolina, other research has found that charters have likely exacerbated segregation. (Coughlan’s Charlotte data does not include charter schools.) Nationally, research has shown that charters either exacerbate school segregation or have no effect on it.

“The broader literature at this point I think shows that charter schools do not integrate schools,” said Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who studies segregation.

Other research has shown that the existence of different school options can promote neighborhood integration (also described as gentrification). That could help explain Coughlan’s results, with a family’s ability to opt out of a neighborhood school encouraging their move to a neighborhood they wouldn’t otherwise have considered.

The disconnect between housing and schooling trends has important implications. For one, it means that divided neighborhoods shouldn’t be used as an excuse to do nothing about divided schools, said Tomas Monarrez, a researcher at the Urban Institute who has studied school boundaries.

“Neighborhood segregation is the result of a long, long history of discriminatory policies both on the part of private agents and the federal government,” he said. “School systems have gotten to ride that and say segregation’s not our fault.”

Instead, he argued, school leaders should be taking affirmative steps to integrate schools, and recognize that they may have to continually adjust their policies. “School attendance boundaries don’t have to replicate neighborhood segregation,” Monarrez said. “You can gerrymander school attendance boundaries to decrease it.”

City-by-city data

You can look up how residential and school segregation changed in your city from 1990 to 2015 below. Keep in mind that a city and its corresponding school district do not always overlap perfectly — the school data for Indianapolis, for example, includes just the Indianapolis Public Schools, the city’s central district but one of 11 districts in the city.

Segregation, here, means the degree to which the demographics of students in individual schools mirror the rest of the city’s public school students. This captures whether different groups of students are spread evenly across schools in a city, but it doesn’t say much about cities where virtually all students are students of color. Most segregation occurs between rather than within school districts.

Source: “Divergent Trends in Neighborhood and School Segregation in the Age of School Choice,” Peabody Journal of Education.


Some Asian American groups have backed the SHSAT, but this one says the exam should go

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School is one of the city's most sought-after specialized high schools.

In the fight to integrate New York City’s coveted specialized high schools, one source of opposition has stood out.

Asian parents and alumni have waved signs at City Hall, heckled education leaders at town halls, and marched in protest of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the test that serves as the sole entrance criteria for the elite schools.

That’s why it’s noteworthy that the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families is calling for the test to be nixed in favor of an admissions system that weighs multiple factors, releasing a report on Tuesday that attempts to bring nuance to a debate that has often played out in sound bites.

“We believe that current admissions processes to specialized high schools contribute to the problems of segregation and inequity in NYC public schools,” the advocacy organization’s report notes.

Specialized high schools enroll a disproportionate share of Asian students. Many have argued that the mayor’s plan, which aims to enroll more black and Hispanic students in the schools, pits one community of color against others. Only about 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, even though those students comprise about 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The Coalition’s report offers a counter-narrative to the debate, highlighting that many Asian organizations have long called for admissions changes at the specialized high schools and arguing that Asian students would benefit from an overhaul.

But the organization stops short of endorsing de Blasio’s proposal, blasting his administration for failing to include the Asian community in its development or rollout. (One of the coalition’s co-directors is a mayoral appointee to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy.)  

“We remain highly critical of the processes that he and the Department of Education have taken in crafting and releasing those proposals to the public,” the report says.

An education department spokesman said the city looks forward to working with the coalition to eliminate the test, and said the city is presenting its plan to every community school district.

The report comes as parents are considering suing over the city’s diversity efforts and supporters of the test have hired a lobbyist to fight the potential changes.

The coalition’s stance also highlights the steep challenge de Blasio faces as he gears up to lobby state lawmakers to scrap the entrance exam, which is currently required by state law. Though Democrats managed to gain control of the Senate in the latest election, the issue doesn’t have a clear party line — and some of the mayor’s natural allies have expressed doubt, or even backed away from the mayor’s proposal.

Read the full report here