Chicago, It’s Time to Rethink the “Selective” Part of Selective Enrollment Schools

By Alex Seeskin

This past Friday, thousands of CPS eighth graders from across the city applied for access to selective enrollment high schools. Many of the schools, which accept only a small percentage of applicants, are rated in the nation’s top 100 schools and send graduates to some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.

However, access to these schools won’t be equitably distributed across Chicago. In a district that is predominantly Black, Latinx, and low-income, these competitive enrollment schools are disproportionately white and wealthy. White CPS students are more than three times as likely to attend a selective high school as their Black and Latinx peers, and students from the top income quartile are more than twice as likely to attend as students from the lowest income quartile.

In other words, the system disproportionately benefits students with the most unearned advantage. As such, it contributes to a historic and persistent opportunity gap in the city for students of color and those from low income families, reinforcing the insidious message that these students are less intelligent or don’t work hard enough to access the district’s most prestigious schools.

This process was not built by accident. One of the original aims of selective enrollment high schools was to keep white students in the public school system and prevent white flight.

This process was not built by accident. One of the original aims of selective enrollment high schools was to keep white students in the public school system and prevent white flight. When several of the schools opened twenty years ago, an article noted that the “[selective] schools certainly help keep the brightest students in the system,” adding that they had “pulled back white middle class children [into CPS],” thus keeping them from attending private schools.

In 2009, a federal judge lifted CPS from a consent decree that required the district to use race as a factor in selective admissions and, since then, the district has shifted to using a system based on socioeconomic tiers. CPS currently holds 30% of seats in selective enrollment high schools for students across the district with the highest test scores and grades, and then divides the remaining students into income quartiles, giving admission to the students with the highest scores in each group.

More recently, in response to increasing evidence that selective schools have become even more segregated, the district announced a change to its policy that will hold 14% of seats at each selective enrollment high school for students who receive special education services. The recent change is an important step in the right direction, and it’s important to note that CPS’s selective schools are actually more diverse than many other urban districts.

The district should eliminate or substantially reduce the role of standardized tests scores. Since these scores are largely reflective of a student’s socioeconomic status and are not predictive of future academic success, using them as two-thirds of a student’s admissions score creates a false sense of meritocracy where privileged students “earn” rather than are born with their access.

Still, there are other, basic changes that would make the admissions process even more equitable. To begin with, the district should eliminate or substantially reduce the role of standardized tests scores. Since these scores are largely reflective of a student’s socioeconomic status and are not predictive of future academic success, using them as two-thirds of a student’s admissions score creates a false sense of meritocracy where privileged students “earn” rather than are born with their access. And regardless of how entrance scores are calculated, the district should eliminate the 30% of seats that are reserved for the highest scoring students, ensuring that all seats are distributed equitably.

A more equitable admissions system would place all students into separate lotteries within socioeconomic tiers or other groups (including students who receive special education services or are English language learners). This is what District 15 in New York did when they developed a desegregation plan with a lottery-based admissions system for their 11 middle schools, with more than half of the spots at each school going to students who are low-income, ESL, or living in temporary housing. In the first year of implementation of the new admissions system, eight out of the eleven schools met the district’s enrollment targets.

Recently, New York City announced that all of the district’s selective middle schools would move to a lottery for at least one year. Boston and San Francisco are moving in similar directions with their selective high schools.

To be clear, making these changes would likely reduce the white and wealthy population in selective enrollment high schools. Put another way, it means that many parents of privilege could send their children to high schools with fewer white and wealthy students, enroll them in private schools, or move out of Chicago.

This could lead to resistance. Researchers from Harvard interviewed thousands of white parents and found that, “simply the presence of substantial numbers of black children in a residential area appears to affect white parents’ assessment of school quality.” Indeed, when District 15 switched to a lottery-based system thanks to pressure from parents, white parents who had not previously paid attention pushed back, asking the district to delay the changes. They were concerned that under the new system, their children would not get into a “high-performing” school.

But evidence suggests that whatever high school they attend, white and wealthy students will be fine: there actually aren’t significant differences in academic and college admission outcomes between attending a selective enrollment school and a top-tier public high school, and there are amazing neighborhood and charter high schools all over Chicago where students of privilege would thrive.

But evidence suggests that whatever high school they attend, white and wealthy students will be fine: there actually aren’t significant differences in academic and college admission outcomes between attending a selective enrollment school and a top-tier public high school, and there are amazing neighborhood and charter high schools all over Chicago where students of privilege would thrive.

To be clear, changing the make-up of selective enrollment schools is not going to magically make these schools centers of equitable education. A recent report from the Chicago Fed suggests part of the lack of representation comes from some groups of students choosing not to apply to selective schools. There are also deeper, more systemic issues at play — many students of color at selective schools are calling out racism on their campuses — and any change in the admissions process will need to be accompanied by intentional anti-racist training.

Still, reimagining the admissions process for selective enrollment schools is a critical step towards building a more inclusive environment for all students. After all, the equitable nature of a school system is not only dependent on the degree to which it supports its most vulnerable students, but also the ways it protects its scarcest resources from the most advantaged families. It is past time for Chicago to rethink the “selective” part of selective enrollment high schools.

Amara Cohen, a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago, conducted the background research for this piece.

The To&Through Project aims to increase high school & post-secondary completion for under-resourced students of color in Chicago & around the country.

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