Selective standards under scrutiny as NYC Council debates school admissions

The New York City Council is grading a myriad of changes in how public schools admit students since the pandemic interrupted many long-standing practices.

At the core of the discussion was the question of how far districts should go in using selective criteria such as grades and test scores in deciding who gets into which school.

Councilwoman Rita Joseph, who heads the education committee and oversaw the council’s hearing on Wednesday, welcomed new policies in some districts that shelve the use of selective enrollment criteria, criticized for contributing to segregated classrooms.

“I’m proud of the decisions of superintendents who continue to make positive steps toward integration,” said Joseph.

But some council members urged education officials to go back to pre-pandemic policy like considering student test scores in admissions.

Others still raised concerns about the return to so-called “academic screens” at all.

“I continue to be deeply dismayed at the years and terms and practices that perpetuate segregation in our city public schools,” said Councilwoman Alexa Aviles.

Chancellor David Banks has voiced support for diversifying schools, but the city’s top education official says he will not mandate such initiatives from central headquarters. Instead, he has said his priority is good neighborhood schools, even if those programs remain segregated.

“We are committed to supporting integration efforts that are community driven, by and for families,” his first deputy, Dan Weisberg, told the Council.

The Adams administration has undone several policy changes under former Mayor Bill de Blasio that impact the 300,000 students who enroll in new schools each year.

Adams and Banks walked back plans to phase out Gifted & Talented programs — adding 1,100 slots, though scrapping a polarizing exam that before the pandemic was the sole indicator of giftedness for 4-year-olds.

The city left decisions about middle school admissions up to local superintendents.

For the first time since the pandemic, 59 schools implemented screens based on grades, compared to 196 schools before COVID-19 interrupted the enrollment process, education officials testified.

For older students, Banks narrowed the pool of top-performing students who get first dibs on 120 selective high schools. This year, enrollment officials expect 20% of applicants will fall into the city’s top tier, compared to 60% last year. Families rank their favorite programs and get matched with schools.

“We need to be more diverse,” said Councilwoman Linda Lee. “We also need to be balanced because if parents have to send their students all the way to Manhattan or halfway across the city, I don’t think that’s necessarily doing a service to students.”

“I think the focus should be how do we improve school overall,” she added. “So that every single student in the city actually has what they need to succeed.”