Citing the coronavirus’ disruptions to NYC schools and the need to advance racial equity, six New York City Council Members, led by Council Member Brad Lander, will introduce a resolution calling on the NYC Department of Education to prohibit the use of screens (usually drawn from 4th graders’ spring semester) for middle school admissions for the 2021-2022 school year. 

NEW YORK – As the deadline for decisions about next year’s schools admissions process approaches, integration advocates and elected officials are calling for the NYC Department of Education to suspend the use of admissions screens for middle schools next year. The criteria that the screens rely on – the grades, state test scores, and attendance records from last spring’s pandemic semester – have all been disrupted by COVID-19. The recording of Wednesday’s virtual press conference is available here.

Councilmembers Brad Lander, Carlina Rivera, Ritchie Torres, Inez Barron, Keith Powers, and Antonio Reynoso will introduce a resolution Thursday calling on the DOE to suspend the use of screens for middle-school admission for the academic year 2021-2022. Council Members and advocates cited the impossibility of drawing any fair criteria for last spring’s school year, the racial inequity and segregation that the pandemic has revealed and amplified, and the absurdity of sorting the life-chances of 9-year-olds based on these screens. 

The resolution urges the DOE to utilize the example set by Community School District 15, which in 2018 became the first district in the city to eliminate admissions screens for its 11 middle schools as part of the District 15 Integration Plan. Instead, District 15 implemented a ranked lottery, in which families rank their favorite schools, and then students are assigned by a lottery that includes a targeted percentage of seats for low-income, English language learners, and homeless students that reflect their proportion in the district as a whole. Over the past two years, the District 15 process has resulted in markedly more integrated sixth-grade classes, with the vast majority of students receiving one of their top choices. 

“Even before the pandemic we knew that using performance and behavioral screens from 4th graders to determine middle school admissions furthered segregation and inequities in our schools. But this year, it is beyond absurd,” said Council Member Brad Lander, whose council district overlaps with school District 15. “We cannot use last spring’s grades, attendance, or test scores, all of which are nonexistent or meaningless, to sort the life-chances of the 9-year-olds who are living through this crisis. The right thing to do is to eliminate middle school screens for next year’s admissions, and commit to a plan to engage parents, students and educators in a process to make longer-term policy changes to advance fairness and equity.”

Council Member Lander sent the DOE a letter on May 17, the 66th anniversary of Brown v. Board, proposing the elimination of middle school admissions screens next year, mitigation measures to reduce further segregation in high school admissions policies, and a plan to evaluate and consider making longer term changes in the admissions processes. 

Amid the ongoing debates over school reopening safety plans, the Department of Education has said little about admissions processes, which generally begin shortly after school starts, with open houses and middle-school fairs throughout the fall, and applications due in early December. 

Approximately 37% of New York City’s public middle school programs use some form of competitive screening which evaluate students based on their attendance, interviews, grades, test scores, an exam, or some combination of these criteria, according to New York Appleseed. Those criteria are typically drawn from the second semester of students’ 4th grade year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, each of those criteria was rendered effectively meaningless. The state tests for the 2019-2020 year were cancelled. Elementary school grading policies shifted to “meets standards” vs. “needs improvement,” in place of the 4-level system. And attendance was not reported in a consistent or universal manner. In addition, students had a wide variety of experiences with remote learning, shaped by their access to technology, availability of parental support, quiet study space, and other factors that frequently correlate to class and race. 

“The truth is that screens do not just reward hard work,” said Django Spadola, a rising 8th grader in a D15 middle school and leader with Integrate NYC’s Middle School Youth Council, at Wednesday’s press conference. “There is a correlation between test scores and grades and family income and race. We have a public school system, and I think that public school should provide everyone with an equal opportunity. ”

“Limiting access to educational opportunity based on a child’s educational experiences in their first nine years of life is never appropriate, and it is especially egregious during a pandemic,” said New York Appleseed’s Integrated Schools Project Director Nyah Berg.  “Appleseed has long called for an end to this practice — almost unique to New York City — and many others, including the mayor’s own School Diversity Advisory Group, have reached the same conclusion. We applaud Council Member Lander for introducing this important resolution.”

“Academic screens have acted as a de facto gate keeper for predominantly white, affluent public schools for years,” said Council Member Rivera. “And now that students, especially low income children of color, are experiencing even greater obstacles to their education because of COVID, it is critical that we suspend screened admissions.”

“Middle school screens are yet another obstacle that prohibit the integration of our city’s schools, and disallows hundreds of students from benefiting from cultural enrichment. The screens should not be used in the 2021-2022 school year, and should be re-evaluated moving forward so that integration is the goal,” said Council Member Torres.

“This year has been unlike any other school year in modern history. In light of all the challenges that students have faced over the past several months, removing screens for next school year is a common-sense measure,” said Council Member Powers. “I commend Council Member Lander for this work, and will also be introducing measures to help make the admissions process fairer for all New Yorkers.”

“This period will go down as one of the most difficult in our City’s history and that burden has fallen especially hard on our youngest students,” said Council Member Reynoso. “While the transition to digital learning was an important one to protect the safety of students and their families, it simply cannot replace the support found in a classroom environment. We should not subject our students to screens that were often discriminatory under normal circumstances, but now have the potential to permanently cement learning gaps developed during the COVID crisis. I want to thank Council Member Lander for raising this important issue and I would strongly encourage the DOE to implement this policy.”