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New York City, embracing merit, rolls back diversity plan for schools

New York Mayor Eric Adams had backed merit-based admissions for schools. (Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg)

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia had shifted toward using a lottery as part of its admissions process. The school moved toward a “holistic review” that considers several factors. This version has been corrected.

New York City schools announced Thursday they would allow middle schools to consider academics in admitting students to some of the city’s most sought-after programs, unraveling pandemic-era rules aimed at injecting racial and economic diversity into a segregated system.

High schools would also rely more heavily on merit and less on the luck of a lottery under the new plan, reversing the previous administration’s direction as a new mayor takes command of the nation’s largest school system.

Mayor Eric Adams and his schools chief, David C. Banks, have made clear they want to reward merit in admissions decisions, and backers say this is critical to retaining privileged families who will leave the public schools if their children are not placed on campuses they say are equipped to serve them best.

“This process, I think, will ensure more top-tier students, students who achieve, will get into the schools of their choice,” Banks said Thursday. Students who work hard, he said, “deserve to be rewarded for that.”

Also under the new rules, a smaller group of top students will qualify for a lottery into the most sought-after high schools. And for middle school, the city’s 32 districts will have the option of bringing back admission criteria that advantage those with the best grades or other metrics. Each district will make its own decision after gathering input, though they have only a few weeks before final rules are put in place in late October.

Critics argue these policies box out many Black, Latino and low-income students from top schools and drive segregation in the city schools.

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“Competitive admission methods that are built on the premise of exclusivity have no place in public school systems that are meant to serve all students,” read a statement from the advocacy group New York Appleseed. The decision, it said, will “take us a step backward in fulfilling a promise to provide students with inclusive, equitable, and integrated schools.”

Asked about this concern, Banks said at a news conference that he rejects the premise that Black and Latino students cannot compete and succeed with higher standards.

Lucas Liu, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, in Manhattan, said he expects a fierce debate and hopes academic criteria will be restored for some of the middle schools in the area. Parents who don’t want that need not apply, he said.

“Nobody should be trying to tell another parent what type of education their kid should be getting,” said Liu, who is also co-president of Place NYC, a parent group that advocates for merit-based admissions. “We have to accept kids are at different abilities at different levels.”

Across the country, similar debates have raged over the value of racially diverse schools and classrooms against the advantages of rewarding top students with access to elite schools and advanced courses.

In San Francisco, admissions into the elite Lowell High School were converted from merit-based into a lottery system. As in New York, though, the change was reversed — in this case, after several school board members were recalled, in part over this issue.

In Northern Virginia, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology also shifted from an admissions test to a “holistic review” that considers several factors, a move that is being challenged in court and has faced resistance from the Republican governor and his administration.

Hear from four TJ freshmen admitted under controversial circumstances

Elsewhere, schools have worked to dismantle academic sorting at the classroom level, eliminating or reducing tracking of students into regular and honors-level classes.

In New York, the debate is particularly fiery because students are required to apply to middle and high school, and before the pandemic, about a third of the city’s 900 middle and high schools included requirements for admission — such as grades, test scores, attendance and behavior records. Those measures tended to favor the most privileged students, who were also most likely to be White or Asian. These applicants flocked to schools that had the best academic reputations.

That system was largely converted into a lottery under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

For high school, applicants were put into tiers based on their grades. But the top tier included about 60 percent of all students, who had the first crack at the top schools. Competitive schools drew acceptances randomly from this group.

Critics said that because so many students qualified for the top tier, there was almost no reward for those who worked hardest in middle school. But supporters were buoyed because some schools grew more racially and economically diverse.

Now, under the new system announced Thursday, it will be harder to get into the top tier, though once in that group, it will still be a lottery. To get into the top tier, students must be in the top 15 percent of their school or of the city overall, and they must have at least a 90 percent on grades.

Test scores, which had been used for years but also criticized as biased, will not be considered. Banks said exam scores are a flawed measure but grades are “still a very solid indicator of how you are showing up as a student,” even for students who face hardships at home.

For middle school, decisions about “screens” — or admissions criteria — will be made by individual districts. The education department did not specify who would have the final say but said it would work to engage the community.

Kaushik Das, who serves on the Community Education Council for District 2 in Manhattan, said he hopes the district restores screens to the half-dozen or so middle schools that had them before the pandemic.

“Parents who want a zoned school or a lottery school can still pick them,” he said. “Parents who want more for their kids, who want more rigor, who want schools teaching above grade level should also have that choice.”

But Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate who directs the Integration and Innovation Initiative at New York University, said he worries that there are only a few weeks for community engagement on an issue that draws passionate views from both sides.

“This will undoubtedly ensure the most well-resourced and privileged voices get heard, and opens the city back up to more segregation,” he said. “Screens cause segregation. Segregation is bad. We should stop using screens.”