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Lori Nathanson: Reducing the Isolation of Low Achieving Students

Students’ transition to high school marks a critical juncture, especially for low-performing middle schoolers—statistically, these students are less likely than their peers to thrive in high school and graduate on time. Close to 80,000 students participate in the ritual of choosing and applying to NYC’s public high schools each year. With more than 700 programs at 400-plus schools, the process can seem overwhelming. The intent of the choice process is to help students (and their families) find a high school that best meets their needs, but little is known about how well this process works for students. A deeper understanding of students’ choices and their placements, especially those of the lowest-achieving students, can help us identify improvements to the high school choice process that will help more students succeed.

My colleagues and I examined the school choices and placements of low-achieving students entering NYC high schools between 2007 and 2011. Overall, we found low-achieving students and their peers were equally likely to be assigned to their top-choice school. However, low-achieving students tended to choose schools that were less selective, lower-performing and more disadvantaged on average. Consequently, we also found systematic differences in the performance and composition of schools ultimately attended by low-achieving students and their higher-achieving peers, a finding supported by Ready and colleagues’ analysis of the 2005 cohort of rising 9th graders.  One explanation for these patterns is geography; we found that both low- and higher-achieving students preferred schools that were close to home. Thus, differences in students’ choices likely reflect, at least in part, the fact that lower-achieving students are highly concentrated in poor neighborhoods, where options may be more limited.

Such findings raise at least two important questions for policymakers, educators and researchers regarding the choice process.

First, how can school choice policies address the concentration of low-achieving students in disadvantaged schools? Choice policies provide citywide school options, but in practice, students are constrained by familiarity with a school and their willingness to travel. Students appear to prefer higher-performing schools and schools that are close to home (selecting first-choice schools that are about a half hour away on average). 

The good news is that schools across the City appear to be improving. In The Condition of NYC High Schools, my colleague James Kemple reported that graduation rates increased from 51 percent in 2003 to 69 percent in 2011. Yet, performance continues to vary across schools. We need to better understand and improve the supply of higher-performing schools, particularly the extent to which they are available in the communities where many of NYC’s low-achieving students live. Likewise, additional research is needed about strategies to help low-achieving students access higher-performing schools outside of their communities.

Second, to what extent does NYC’s system of selective and non-selective high schools isolate lower-achieving students? With its geographic priorities and performance-based admission criteria, the choice system has the potential to sort low- and high-achieving students into different schools. Not surprisingly, we found that low-achieving students were less likely than their peers to rank a selective high school as their top choice, and those who did were much less likely to be admitted. Greater attention should be paid to the geographic distribution of selective and non-selective schools, as well as the way admissions methods shape choices and the allocation of students across schools. One viable strategy for reducing the isolation of lower-achieving students in certain schools may be increasing the portfolio of “educational option” schools, which admit students from across the spectrum of academic achievement.

Much more research about NYC’s high school choice process is needed. This includes studies examining the impact of high school choice on student outcomes like engagement in school, progress toward on-time graduation, and college readiness. Information yielded by such studies will provide valuable guidance to educators and policymakers about how to make the high school choice process work for more students, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

Dr. Lori Nathanson joined the Research Alliance for New York City Schools in 2010 after working with Yale University and the New Line Learning Federation Schools in Maidstone, England.