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NYC High Schools Need a Better Admissions Method: Why Not Try This?

Date: October, 29 2019 Author: Gregory Wickham

This article was originally posted on New York School Talk.

New York City public high schools are constantly changing their admission procedures. For instance, Beacon High School, which used to have an interview, doesn’t anymore. Frank McCourt High School got rid of their group activity that they used to sort students. School of the Future stopped asking for portfolios this year. These schools are putting more weight on grades, test scores, and attendance. I hope that’s an admissions approach that doesn’t truly reflect what a school is and what they are looking for in a student.

When you’re interviewing for a programming job, you’re asked to write code. When you audition for a dance company or show, you have to learn and perform a combination. But when you want to apply to a good school, you just show them your grades and test scores from your current school?

Something clearly isn’t right. Software companies want programmers who can program quickly and effectively, so they ask applicants to demonstrate that capability to decide whether to hire them. When auditioning as a dancer, whoever is judging is looking for three things: how quickly the dancer picks up the combination, how well they perform it, and their attitude (so as not to hire someone with whom it is unpleasant to work), all factors that are critical to one’s success in that career. When you apply to a school, they simply look at transcripts and test scores. These qualities only demonstrate that a student performed well in the setting where they were being graded.

This methodology indicates that all a school wants are students who perform well. They don’t care how terrible any of their past teachers were, how much tutoring they needed, or how much the student already knew about a subject before taking a class. They don’t care if a student is studious and a hard worker, if they’re disruptive in class, or if they are easy to teach. They only care that their students will perform well, so that the school looks good.

In an audition or interview, you have to directly demonstrate the skills that are needed from you. In a school environment, you might think that the necessary skills would be the ability to learn quickly, cooperate with other students, and use one’s knowledge effectively, but schools don’t search for students with these qualities. Why? Because if they did, they would be forced to do more work to become more effective schools.

That isn’t how schools should work. Schools should try to teach students as much as possible, not simply find students who are already doing well and put them in a room together. The fact that this is how schools operate shows that they understand they add very little value for students.  A good school makes low-performing students perform well. If a school makes well-performing students perform well, is it really adding any value?

A better way for schools to determine which students they can serve best would be to put them in the kind of environment they would experience at that school and see how they fare. They could be given a lesson on a subject none of them have prior experience with, and then tested. (If that is similar to how the school operates). Or, they could be given small group projects to work on and scored on cooperation as well as the quality of the project, if the school prefers students who thrive in that type of environment.

When I was interviewed at Columbia Secondary School, I was asked to come up with, in a few minutes, as many ways as possible to move a large boulder off a road. Then, I was asked which method I thought was best and why. This would give me the impression that Columbia Secondary is a school where quick creativity and logical selection of ideas is critical. Maybe that is the case, maybe it isn’t, but the questions schools ask should be related to what they want to select for in students.

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Gregory Wickham

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