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City to monitor selective schools’ student choices after Liu audit

The Department of Education will increase monitoring of city high schools’ admissions practices after an audit by Comptroller John Liu found opportunities for abuse, and possible evidence of it.

Every year, eighth-graders in New York City rank up to 12 high schools that they would like to attend. And the city’s more than 500 high schools rank the students who apply, in accordance with criteria that the schools themselves set. Then the city runs an algorithm and students are matched with a school.

The architect of that algorithm won a Nobel Prize last year for his work. But Liu’s office concluded that the department’s lack of oversight meant that selective schools are able to accept students who do not meet their admissions criteria while turning away others who do.

Examining admissions data from the most popular selective high school in each borough, Liu’s office found that 8 percent of more than 4,000 applicants were chosen despite not meeting the criteria that the schools themselves set. The audit also found that the schools used selection criteria that were different from what was published in the city’s annual high schools directory.

About a quarter of applicants are placed at schools that are permitted to screen their students. Schools look for a range of characteristics, including high test scores and grades, good attendance, a strong performance in auditions and interviews, and high-quality essays and work portfolios.

“Our audit confirmed what many frustrated parents and students have long suspected: The city’s high-school placement process is often unfair and deeply flawed,” Liu said. “Applying to high school is an important and stressful enough experience for students and parents, and it must not be left to a sloppy and random system like the one our audit found.”

Liu, a mayoral candidate who as comptroller has turned a particularly keen eye on the Department of Education, recommends that the city tighten oversight of schools’ admissions practices. “In the absence of reasonable controls to monitor the ranking process performed at schools, there is a significant risk that the ranking process will not be carried out in a fair and consistent manner,” the audit finds.

In their formal response, department officials agreed to increase oversight of the admissions process, committing to audit a sample of schools’ student lists annually to make sure that the schools adhered to their selection criteria.

“NYC DOE will intervene when schools are not adhering to their published criteria,” wrote Marc Sternberg, senior deputy chancellor for strategy and innovation.

The department has already begun stepping into the admissions process at selective schools that do not rank enough applicants to fill their seats. Rather than letting the schools handpick applicants to round out their entering class, this year the department simply began assigning students. The policy change drew fire because the schools were being made to enroll students who did not meet the admissions standards and in some cases had not even completed the application process.

A department spokesman, Devon Puglia, said that while Liu’s audit highlighted some areas for improvement, it also ignored the ways in which the city’s high school admissions process succeeds.

“You would never know it reading this report, but transparency in high school admissions has never been greater,” Puglia said, noting that about three quarters of eighth-graders are typically matched with one of their top three high school choices.