Selective school admissions: How they are playing out in Year 2

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Principals at the district’s elite elective enrollment high schools
convinced former CEO Ron Huberman last year that students who didn’t
score high enough on entrance exams would struggle academically.
Huberman allowed two principals to set cut scores that kept out students
if they didn’t score above it, regardless of other admission factors.

This year, Interim CEO Terry Mazany wasn’t buying it. Principals at the district’s elite elective enrollment high schools convinced former CEO Ron Huberman last year that students who didn’t score high enough on entrance exams would struggle academically. Huberman allowed two principals to set cut scores that kept out students if they didn’t score above it, regardless of other admission factors.

This year, Interim CEO Terry Mazany wasn’t buying it.

Mazany decided to let the admissions process play out. The process awards 30 percent of seats based on test scores alone, with the remaining 70 percent of seats divided among four tiers, which are determined by the demographics of the student’s census tract. The goal is to maintain diversity without using race as an explicit admissions factor.

This year, the absence of a cut-off score was one reason that students from low-income areas got first-round acceptance letters with significantly lower scores than last year, says Katie Ellis, the project manager for CPS’ transition to the new admissions process. 

To get into Lane, Whitney Young, Northside, Payton or Jones, the minimum score needed by a student from the lowest-income tier was 88 points below the minimum score needed by a student in the highest income tier. (The total score for the entrance test is 900, with a maximum of 300 points each for grades, standardized test scores and entrance test scores.)

Two other factors accounted for the differential, Ellis says. For one, CPS this year sent out 1,000 more first-round acceptance letters than they have seats available, knowing that many students would turn down seats in schools that were not their top choice. With an overabundance of offers, seats may well not be available in the second round—an important consideration for families that might turn down seats thinking that they stand a better shot at a top choice in the second round. Also, the number of seats awarded based on socio-economic tier increased from 60 percent last year to 70 percent this year.

Ellis says that CPS officials do not think the differential in test scores will affect the rigor or quality of the selective enrollment high schools. “The administration has extreme confidence in their ability to make these students thrive,” she says.

But some principals do have concerns, which they relayed to Mazany in a meeting last week. Mazany encouraged the principals to come up with “reasonable proposals” for changing the policy, according to spokeswoman Monique Bond.

Whitney Young Principal Joyce Kenner says the differential proves to her that the new admission process doesn’t work. There’s a definite correlation between admission scores and a student’s ability to succeed at her school, she contends. The minimum score this year for students in the lowest-income tier at Whitney Young was 784, compared to 818 last year. Meanwhile, for the highest-income tier, the minimum score was nearly identical, at about 865.

“Students who have scored off the chart are not getting in, while students who have not done as well are getting spots,” Kenner says.

Since first-round acceptance letters went out last week, Kenner says she has been inundated with calls and e-mails. While she always received a fair number of inquiries from parents, it has increased under this process.

Kenner adds that diversity at her school has decreased under the new policy, with the white student population growing. The new admissions process was put in place as a proxy for race after a federal judge lifted CPS’ federal desegregation consent decree dictated that CPS use race as a factor in admissions. CPS lawyers were worried that continuing to use race would result in a legal battle.

Much hand-wringing is often done about the district’s most competitive high schools, which are located on the near west and north sides of the city. But the four other selective schools—Lindblom, King, Brooks and Westinghouse—also had gaps between the scores of students from the lowest and highest income tiers.

Jeff Wright, principal at King College Prep, says he is not that concerned about the 40-point differential at his school. His students hail from a diverse group of elementary schools, he says, and the level of rigor in these schools is probably the biggest factor in whether or not students have difficulty transitioning.

In the first round of letters, King, a school that has traditionally been predominantly black, offered 60 percent of its seats to black students, 30 percent to Latino students, five percent to Asian students and five percent to white students.

“The question now is, ‘Who is going to accept?’ ” Wright says. Wright says last year’s incoming class was its most diverse—something that he attributes to marketing, not the new admissions policy. 

For better or worse, the message to students living in wealthy areas is that they have to be super -prepared if they expect to be admitted to one of the elite schools, says Jonina Lerner, a partner at SelectivePrep, a company that offers $395 test preparation courses to ,, 6th ,7th , and 8th- grade students preparing for selective schools.

“The level of competition is so intense that you have to know everything,” she says.

Matthew J. Robinson’s 8th-grade son felt that pressure this year. Robinson lives in the wealthiest tier in his census tract and says that’s an appropriate designation for his family. His son did not get his first choice of Lane Tech, but is hoping to get in on the second round. He also was admitted to the International Baccalaureate program at Lincoln Park High School and the Scholars Program at Von Stueben.  

Robinson says he understands the intent behind using socio-economic status in admissions, since whether a student lives in a two-parent home and the income level of the family affects their education. But he says some other parents are frustrated.

“They don’t see what is best for society, they only see what is best for Buffy,” he says.

Greg Sarchet says the stress on students, especially those in wealthy areas, has increased over time and that it is too much. Sarchet’s older son went to Payton High School and is now at the University of Chicago. His younger son, who is in 8th grade, scored higher on the admission criteria but didn’t get into Payton. Still, he’s happy with a seat in his second choice, Jones.

While things have worked out well for his sons, Sarchet says he is not sold on using socio-economic status in admissions. It means that neighbors are competing very directly with each other and communities are pitted against one another. “It does not help unify the city,” he says.

The real solution, Sarchet says, is for there to be more selective enrollment schools so that every competitive student who is seeking a good education has a chance at getting into one.

“It pains me to see capable kids not getting an opportunity,” he says.