Making Selectivity In Schools An Achievement

If proof was needed to show how ill-suited DC’s legislative body is for the role of school board (well, beyond the failing closure vote on Wash Met), it came via the February 10 hearing of bill 23-0496, the Fair Access to Selective High Schools Amendment act.

The bill outlines how 7th graders will be provided with information about applying to citywide selective high schools; permits the top 15% of 8th graders to apply to citywide selective high schools; and doesn’t use standardized test scores as a criterion for application. The bill mainly addresses gatekeeping in who can apply to our selective high schools–not as much in who is admitted.

(As one hearing witness pointed out, anyone can apply to Harvard–but not, apparently, to DCPS selective high schools.)

The bill was created largely in response to a requirement of high scores on PARCC for eligibility to apply to some selective DCPS high schools. Because of what appeared to be rank bias in that limitation for application (since test scores are correlated with household income), some students were told they could apply to some selective high schools regardless of their PARCC scores, as long as they were ranked among the top 15 students in their class.

But then officials at the lottery, My School DC, refused to permit that due to insufficient notification for all students (i.e., not for just those who had heard this through some grapevine).

Given that this change of course occurred after the lottery had started, affected students who had ranked as a first choice a selective school they had been told at one point they were eligible to apply to suddenly were completely shut out from that school as a choice.

Since then, DCPS has forced its selective schools to not require PARCC scores to ensure eligibility to apply–although some schools may still consider the test scores in admissions. This would appear to obviate the need for the bill’s assurance that the top 15% of 8th graders would automatically be eligible to apply to DC’s selective high schools.

The bill also ensures that schools cannot consider individualized education plans (IEPs) as part of their admissions–which is, if you think about it, pretty extraordinary. Basically, the council has endeavored legislatively to ensure that DC schools follow the law and not discriminate on the basis of education status.

All of this is an attempt to address the fact that some selective DCPS high schools are unrepresentative of the majority of kids in DC, as the DC auditor pointed out in May 2019.

For instance, Banneker and Walls have no (as in zero) special education students and less than 20% at risk students–in a city where at least 40% of students are at risk.

Yet, DCPS selective high schools are hardly alone in that, as some have pointed out years ago. (See here and here for starters.)

That is, some DC public schools with 100% randomly chosen students also have unrepresentative student bodies (Washington Latin, 14% at risk, 44% black; BASIS, 8% at risk, 34% black; Yu Ying, 6% at risk, 33% black; DCI, 19% at risk; 36% black; stats are from the latest DC school report cards).

It is not clear whether such non-representative student bodies are a result of discrimination on the part of the schools, whether through application gatekeeping, admissions, or retention (i.e., the gently monikered “counseling out” that never happens–except when it does).

It is also unclear to what extent the non-representative nature of some of our schools’ student bodies represents self-culling.

For students without advanced courses or not working near grade level, for instance, applying to selective high schools may never be a choice, no matter the criteria for applying or admission. Not to mention that proffered work loads or specialized coursework may be simply too much for students tasked with childcare, jobs, long commutes, or difficult living circumstances.

And that’s not even getting into the reality that just because a seat is made available to a student doesn’t mean it’s accepted by that student. For instance, waitlist data have shown for years that many students offered slots at Walls actually turn them down, such that students initially far down Walls’ waitlist eventually are offered a seat that is accepted.

Though the council is not entirely misguided in its earnest effort in this legislation to ensure greater equity in our schools, plenty of witnesses testified to its shortcomings.

As these graphs show, for example, the majority of Walls students come from relatively few middle schools–and many (possibly the majority) at both Banneker and Walls in recent years come from charters.

Yet, these graphs also show that Banneker students come from almost twice as many middle schools as Walls students. This suggests that Walls is exceedingly selective not only in having a black box admissions test that the hearing made clear no one outside the school knows anything about (including what constitutes passing!), but also in the array of schools whose students are represented in the Walls student body.

Among the many things outlined in the recent auditor’s report on enrollment is the fact that everyone in DC who engages in school choice chooses a school that has a smaller proportion of at risk students than what they would otherwise attend.

One could thusly interpret the unrepresentative student bodies of some of our most highly coveted schools to indicate the realization of an apparently widespread DC public school aspiration: to remove one’s children from others who are poor.

So it is that this legislation represents nothing less than a valiant attempt to civilize and rationalize the highly segregated nature of our public schools, which manifests in both racial as well as socioeconomic terms.

The problem is that we have cast one of the contributing factors to that segregation, school choice, into a sterile vacuum of individual actions. We thus avoid addressing serious structural inequalities head on by pretending that they’re addressed BY that choice, even in the face of evidence otherwise.

The idea is that if we can just make school choice fairer (whether through admissions to selective schools done more transparently and/or accessibly; busing; or instituting at risk lottery preferences, which we ironically know don’t really work) AND make our schools have higher test scores, well, we will have done it right! We will close schools with low test scores, open new schools that promise to do better, ensure equity in admissions and access and voila! Good test scores anywhere, kids achieving everywhere, diversity, parent choice, mission accomplished.

This is the story that education reform loves to tell, and it is compelling in its assured insularity.

But it hardly is the complete story–or even a success.

To see that clearly, we need only look at Walls, ranked as one of the best college prep high schools in the nation.

Though never as explicitly outlined as in those graphs linked above, parents and students have known and experienced for years the ramifications of selectivity at Walls. In fact, several have recently written to DC officials about apparent discrimination in the Walls admissions test and at the school itself as well as the fact that the Walls test is wielded in a way that makes it a hotbed for possible discrimination.

And that’s not even getting into the fact that at the same time its student body has been getting whiter, Walls has grappled with serious issues of apparent hate toward anyone not white (see here and here for a few, but not the only, examples).

Yet, per a statement by the school’s principal at its 2019 graduation ceremony, only 70% of Walls graduates complete college in 5 years.

While that is better than average, it also means that 30% of Walls graduates–or on average about 40 every year–do not complete college.

So what are we achieving in this pinnacle of DC school selectivity that is Walls–ranked as one of the best college prep high schools!–if we cannot even say at the end of it that close to (or actually!) 100% of its students graduate from college in 5 years (or maybe ever)?

Rather than serving children, it would appear that we are serving selectivity itself, the crown jewel of school choice, steeped in high test scores and good school ratings.

Not surprisingly, education reform has no way of acknowledging the ills of selectivity (however they occur), because selectivity is key to school choice, whether residential, through the lottery, or via application-only schools. Though no education reformer outwardly condones the demographic sorting that occurs in some of DC’s most highly rated public schools, the entire framework of education reform depends on sorting. Selectivity in DC schools is thus literally the highest achievement of education reform.

As bad as that is, far worse is how education reform has no place for a school with low test scores that may be under-enrolled but nonetheless beloved and doing a good job caring for its students–and thus a success quite apart from test scores. It’s why materials in the master facilities plan don’t take into much account the percent in boundary enrollment–only in boundary participation–as a metric of school use in DCPS. The idea is not to address who is actually at our schools–but who has elected to not attend.

In that respect, education reform cannot ever allow true reform of the sort that we know will help *all* students immediately and lastingly.

For instance, we know right now not merely that our teacher attrition is terrible and has awful consequences on student achievement, but that our schools with large percentages of at risk children (mainly, though not exclusively, DCPS schools) also have the worst teacher attrition; the least experienced teachers; and the most challenges around high student mobility. All of these factors have ramifications for a school’s rating, which is largely based on test scores.

For the most part, these are solvable problems.

For one, you can ensure that teachers are not in fear of losing their jobs every single year. For another, you can track student mobility much better and ensure that the money follows those students from school to school. And finally, you can put into place supports for the schools that we know are the most affected by teacher and student mobility.

But we don’t do ANY of that.

What we have invested in instead is, well, selectivity!

Take the deputy mayor for education’s effort in outlining, just this month alone, changes in enrollment at; unfilled seats in; and commuting distance to schools with 4- and 5-star ratings.

Never mind that there are more students at DC schools without those high ratings–and that those schools need help, especially now that it’s budget season and our city typically shorts schools with larger proportions of at risk children, which is largely the population of our schools without 4 or 5 stars.

But rather than addressing those issues, what is being pushed from the mayor on down is information about 4- and 5-star schools!

The people being paid to do that pushing (i.e., in the deputy mayor for education’s office) are not alone in that effort, because the people who partake of the lottery are doing it themselves! That is, the rush to choose schools with relatively fewer at risk students is a rush to schools with higher test scores, because test scores are correlated to household income of students, and thus a rush to higher star ratings.

While the auditor’s recent report made all of that very clear, it also made clear the price of that movement: neighborhood schools with large proportions of poor children lose enrollment and then resources, and then close.

Or, put another way: focusing our efforts on schools (and seats) of choice does nothing to help schools left behind. And those schools left behind are most definitely not 4- and 5-star schools–but the majority, educating the majority of our students, and often the only guarantors of education rights for those children.

So while the proposed legislation ensures more students may take, say, the Walls test, what good does it do if the test is still a black box or large portions of students are unwelcome (or unprepared!) to take the test or the courses offered? Or if the schools whose students never attend selective schools get fewer resources because those schools are not (and may never be!) 4- or 5-star schools?

The auditor’s report outlined some ways we can accept where all our students are and provide what they need. None of that is in any way beyond our means or capabilities.

It just requires the rarest thing of all in DC public education: political will to not make selectivity in our schools an achievement.

One thought on “Making Selectivity In Schools An Achievement

  1. I couldn’t agree more that DC’s legislative body is a poor substitute for a board of education! The thing I most often heard about DCPS when I moved here twenty years ago was that some of the schools were very good and others were some degree of not good, roughly correlating to what people considered the good and not so good neighborhoods.
    Now, with 25 years of so-called reform, including charter schools and mayoral control, the same problem of some schools being very good and others not still exists and your post shows how that’s working WITHIN the context of “reform” rather than the system being ACTUALLY reformed to eliminate parents from having to go to the lengths they do to find the so-called good schools which just keeps the wheel of selectivity spinning.
    It’s especially egregious to me that a main tool in this facade of reform is the School Lottery which sounds so 21st century and progressive but actually replaces what parents think they are selecting with what a machine tells them they will get.
    Rather than these heavy duty “reforms” resulting in a public school district where each and every school, no matter its zip code, is just as good as the next, Council legislation, mayoral control and charter schools off to the side competing for students have ensured that DCPS is the same as it used to be only now with some hi tech gloss and much prettier buildings.
    Kudos for bringing the subject to people’s attention.


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