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The New York City high school application process is difficult enough without the New York Times making it seem inordinately hard to get into some top schools.

By Wendy Paris

Whether searching for a decent apartment (with closet space, and a window not facing a brick wall) or angling for a seat during the morning commute, New Yorkers compete daily over staples most Americans take for granted. There is plenty of real scarcity to keep everyone doggedly motivated and super-alert.

So why is the New York Times making matters seem even more competitive than they are when it comes to high school admissions?

According to a March 10, 2017 story in the Times, Manhattan/Hunter Science High School admitted just 1.7 percent of all applicants. The paper then compared this number to Stanford’s 4.8 percent acceptance rate.

Over all, the city’s 10 most popular high schools were all tougher to get into than Yale, according to the paper.

By making comparisons like this, the Times is exaggerating the difficulty of getting into the city’s most desirable high schools — and pointing at school choice as the cause – while obscuring real problems dogging New York City’s system.

“The [Times’] implication is clear: it’s absurdly hard to get into good high schools in New York,” according to professor Sam Abrams of Teachers College. “And yet that is far from true.”

“Those 10 schools are nowhere nearly as selective as Yale,” says Abrams.

“If you look at the numbers, you go, ‘Oh my God! It’s harder to get into than Harvard. It’s unbelievable. What’s the point of even applying?’” — NYC parent Nara Milanich

According to Abrams, the method the Times uses to make these claims is inaccurate and misleading. The Times is using an “acceptance” framework — like applying to Harvard — rather than a “matching” one like medical school residencies.

It’s a difference that creates dramatic, yet inherently false statistics, according to Abrams.

“If you’re the No. 1 student at Harvard med school, and you rank six different residencies in New York, you’ll get one match,” he says. “You’ll probably get your first choice, if you’re the No. 1 student. But that doesn’t mean you got rejected by every other one. [And] those other programs can’t boast that they accept only one out of six. The New York City system is the same. You only get one match.”

couldn't get into yale

March 2017 New York Times story about how hard it is to get into top NYC high schools. 

Parsing this distinction is more than mere semantics. Conflating these systems in print has psychological and educational costs – especially in low-income minority households. It also adds to the general air of confusion, anxiety and downright terror many people feel when contemplating the link between high school and total life success.

There is little disagreement that the matching process the NYC school system uses to decide which kids go where differs substantively from the calculations the Times is offering for school admissions rates.

Each year, the nearly 80,000 8th graders in New York City must choose up to 12 of the city’s several hundred high schools, ranking them in order of preference. Schools then rank the students they’ll accept. Finally, a rarified computer process matches each student to one school, ideally at the top or close to the top of his list.

There is a separate process for a handful of test-based and performing arts schools. But for the choice system writ large, a student is matched to one school. And because a student will only be matched to one, she’ll necessarily not be given space in the 11 others.

Couldn’t Get Into Yale 10 New York City High Schools Are More Selective The New York Times

The Times’ list of NYC public high schools who “accept a lower percentage of applicants than Yale.”

The March article in the Times, written by Elizabeth Harris, describes a very different process and outcome.

The Times-generated admissions rates – cobbled together using the number of seats for the current year and the number of applicants for next year – do not appear to incorporate the fact that high school students cannot get into more than one match-based school, and are removed from the pool once they are matched.

Once matched, each student essentially drops out of the running for spots in other schools. There is no getting into multiple schools, or holding spots at more than one school.

“If all students exercise their right to apply to 12 high schools, every school would have an average acceptance rate of 8.3 percent. But that’s not an ‘acceptance rate,’ because the students will not get into 11 of their 12 choices,” says Abrams (whose analysis can be found here). “They’ll get into one.”

“So it’s absolutely nutty that the Times [does] this. It’s absolutely wrong.”

The Times defends its word choice and corresponding math, citing the New York City Department of Education’s use of similar terminology. But some parents say stats like these can dissuade kids from even applying, while some insiders suggest that the system’s complexity is the real problem.

monica disare

Chalkbeat NY article raising questions about New York Times’ depiction of high school admissions process

Abrams isn’t the only one who sees flaws with the way the DOE and the Times have described the process.

“If I applied to you as my seventh choice, and I got accepted by my first choice, I wasn’t rejected by you,” said Alvin Roth, the Stanford economics professor who helped create the system used by New York City. “You never saw me.”

This double-blind process is one of the key strengths of the school choice system, says Roth, because in the past, some principals would reject any students who hadn’t ranked their school No. 1. Now the principals don’t know how students ranked their school. “Game theory talks about strategies and how you get what you want,” says Roth. “The strategy of a school depends on the information it gets. We’re withholding some information to affect the school’s strategy. If we don’t show them the rank order list, they can’t reject a student who didn’t list them as first.”

The system allows students to apply to their preferred schools, rather than trying to game the system by putting the school they think they can get into at the top.

In fact, says Roth, “When you look at the statistics, quite a few students get one their top three choices.” Before this new system, about 30,000 students per year ended up at a school they hadn’t chosen at all.

“If you’re the No. 1 student at Harvard med school, and you rank six different residencies in New York, you’ll get one match… But that doesn’t mean you got rejected by every other [school]. Those other programs can’t boast that they accept only one out of six.” — Columbia’s Sam Abrams

Abrams says his repeated efforts to get the Times to write a new story explaining the difference between applying and being matched have yielded no results.

A spokesperson contacted by The Grade replied by email, “We stand by our story.”

A May 30th piece by Chalkbeat’s Monica Disare reports that the city also defends its choice of nouns. “As we work to improve the high school admissions process for students and families, we’ll continue to use the single word ‘applicants’ to describe students who apply to a school,” education department spokesman Will Mantell told Chalkbeat. “This is the simplest, clearest and most accurate way to share this piece of information, and we added it to the directory in direct response to requests from families and school counselors.”

The Chalkbeat story notes other problems with the way the district and the Times are describing the high school application process. Some number of students listed as applicants didn’t actually complete all the requirements needed for consideration, such as work samples or auditions, while some of the “exclusive” high schools attract many applicants whose grade point averages and state test scores make them non-contenders, whatever system is used.
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It’s one thing for the city and the DOE to gloss over a linguistic distinction that hypes exclusivity, but a newspaper trades on its reporters’ ability to parse subtleties and communicate with precision and careful choice of nouns – regardless of how a subject might want itself described.

Nara Milanich, a Manhattan mother of two with a son just finishing ninth grade at Bard Early College, says this kind of article absolutely affects parents and kids. “My mother sent me that article. You hear these numbers thrown around, and there’s a kernel of truth in all of them. A parent shared the statistics about LaGuardia, the performing arts high school. If you look at the numbers, you go, ‘Oh my God! It’s harder to get into than Harvard. It’s unbelievable. What’s the point of even applying?’ It absolutely makes people anxious. LaGuardia is a little different of a process than with the other schools, but the same discourse surrounds them.”

For Milanich, personal experience told a different story. “By my anecdotal experience and my kid’s class, of about seven who applied to LaGuardia, something like six got in. The kids who applied weren’t fabulous dancers, but they knew what to do to apply. They were well prepared. Their parents were well instructed. Not to dis LaGuardia or the kids who got in, but … the [acceptance rate] numbers are not helpful in terms of understanding what your chances are.”

broken promises choice 2

May NYT article that continues the outlet’s practice of describing applicants’ chances of admission

This isn’t the first time that the Times has chosen to describe the high school application process in exaggerated terms, according to Abrams. He points to a 2005 piece that claims “Beacon [high school] had nearly 6,000 applicants last year for 250 seats.”

A May 5 Times article by Harris and another reporter, Ford Fessenden, does address some of the complaints about the stats by clarifying how the choice system works. But it still fans parents’ fears that top NYC high schools are extraordinarily hard to get into, for example by describing University Heights Secondary School as “a top school in the Bronx where there are 20 applicants for every spot.”

Here again, The Times is overdramatizing the race for acceptance. “The school does not have 20 applicants per seat,” says Abrams. “The truth is that 20 students per seat ranked the school as one of 12 in which they’re interested. We don’t know where they ranked it. They may have ranked it number 12.”

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New York City’s massive high school choice system clearly has problems. Including the fact that navigating it is so complicated as to seem to require an advanced degree.

The complexity actually affects parents and kids more than a newspaper story, says Laura Zingmond, senior editor at InsideSchools, an independent nonprofit focused on NYC schools. It’s also a problem that should caution us against expanding choice even more, she says.

“In terms of confusing people, what’s more confusing is the system itself,” says Zingmond. “In some ways, it may be more complex than a medical residency. At least in the residency, every program looks at the same things.”

She added, “the bigger point is that kids need guidance from adults on what schools to go for and how to rank them. I’m not sure how much this distinction really matters to the individual student when it comes time to rank their options. Having quality guidance is much more of an issue.”

Knowing which schools are most popular does offer insights, from a policy perspective, in terms of trying to replicate them, says Zingmond.

Economist Roth says this is probably a better way to use these numbers; knowing how many places a school has and how many people listed it as their first choice lets you compare desirability. “That’s one of the informative things about preference lists. There are some schools that no one lists as their first choice. That gives you a clue that maybe it’s not the best school in the neighborhood. That would be a more informative number.”

New Yorkers, and the media that serve us, live with a zero-sum-game mentality on a daily basis. Even publications like Time Out New York constantly laud the “in” neighborhood, the “best” hair stylist, the one hot dog stand or overpriced juice bar you can’t miss. There’s a pervasive belief that one neighborhood or bagel or school is somehow universally better than all others, regardless of individual preference or stage of life, and that if you’re not in this neighborhood (or bagel shop or school) you are missing out and will not make it here or, therefor, anywhere.

If we’re going to foist the decision about where to go to school on 13-year-olds (and their parents), better to use the process as a teaching moment than an exercise in unnecessary  anxiety. School choice could be a chance to gain self-knowledge, an opportunity to develop a skill at pursuing options that best serve one’s individual skills and strengths, rather than an early, fraught initiation into the culture of fear of missing out.

WENDY PARIS is the author of Splitopia (Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well). She can be reached at@wendyparis1.