School officials characterized the new rules — which will affect middle school students applying next year for admission to any of the city’s eight selective high schools — as an easier way for families to understand what is expected of them and to navigate the system. The new rules include the elimination of minimums on standardized-test scores and attendance; school officials insist that this doesn’t amount to a lowering of standards but rather a broadening. They explain, for example, that though students won’t be required to have a minimum test score to apply to a school, four of the eight schools will still collect the information and use the scores, along with other measures such as teacher recommendations, in determining admission. Same for attendance and grade-point average — no barrier to an application but a factor in admission.
“Schools,” Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee told us, “will be looking at a wider range of admission material in determining if students are a good fit for their program and ensuring our schools reflect the wealth of experience all students bring to the table. . . . You can both hold students to high standards and consider multiple factors in the admissions process.”
It is hard to know whether officials are right about not lowering standards. The system that has been in place is so opaque that even those in the school system said they had trouble figuring out what criteria were being used. The schools will now each be required to develop and post elibility rubrics, explaining the criteria and detailing how each criterion will be weighed in determinations of admission.
School officials said complaints from parents prompted the overhaul. Clearly, though, there is the hope that the new rules will increase socioeconomic diversity at the selective high schools. That is an essential goal, but it should not be achieved by lowering the bar. What happens if students who are ill-prepared are admitted to these schools? Will they have been set up to fail, or do the schools dumb down their programs to accommodate them?
D.C. schools have made enormous strides in lifting the achievement of their students, but they still have a long way to go, as evidenced by the fact that only 45 students attending neighborhood middle schools in Wards 7 and 8 passed both the English and math portions of standardized exams. A key to the improvement in the schools has been an insistence on high standards and expectations. It would be shortsighted — and wrong — to retreat from them.