How the High School Admissions Process Has Changed In 2020

Hannah Torok, Grade 11, Staff Writer

The past year has been filled with stress-inducing uncertainty for prospective New York City high school students. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the highly intensive high school application process unique to NYC has changed in key ways.


In the NYC public high school system, there are two major groups of schools: specialized and general. Apart from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, the specialized schools look at the performance of students on one test, the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). General high schools traditionally follow a variety of admissions methods, such as screening, audition-based admissions, and zone-based admissions.


Each screened high school has specific admissions criteria. In the screening process, high schools look at seventh-grade report cards, attendance, state test scores, and other requirements. Screening processes have not been changed for this year’s high school applicants. However, due to the pandemic, the graduating class of 2021 has no current official school grades or state test scores, so high schools may look primarily at pre-pandemic grades and test scores when admitting students and ignore seventh grade and eighth-grade report cards and test scores.


Susanna Steinberg, an eighth-grader attending Booker T. Washington Middle School, was upset with these changes. “I’ve worked hard all of seventh grade because that’s what high schools usually look at, and now all they will be able to see are my sixth-grade grades,” she said. Steinberg added that many of her peers felt far less motivated to work hard at the end of seventh grade once they found out high schools would not be considering those grades.


Another factor of the screening process is geographical preferences. Around 250 individual high schools give preference to students who live within a certain distance of the school. This policy has allowed schools in wealthy neighborhoods to fill up their schools with local students, many of whom are white and of higher socioeconomic status. Geographic preference has been at the heart of debates over desegregating NYC schools.


This year, the geographical preference policy was changed by Mayor Bill Deblasio. Over the course of the next two years, geographic preferences will be eliminated. According to a DOE statement, “Approximately 250 total high schools have some type of district or geographic priority in place, such as borough-based priority and district priority, limiting opportunity for hard-working students to attend some of our most in-demand schools based on where they live. This will expand opportunity and increase choice for all rising high school students.”


Furthermore, after a long debate, it was determined that the SHSAT would continue to be the application process for the eight specialized high schools. Some feared the test would be canceled due to the pandemic while others hoped the mayor would use the circumstances to eliminate it. However, since the test is required by state law, the city was forced to administer it. The test was moved from the traditional date in October to a later one, and to minimize the risk of Coronavirus exposure, students took the SHSAT at their own schools instead of taking it at designated testing sites across the city.


The uncertainty of the SHSAT caused tremendous stress for eighth-grade students. “[We] didn’t know when the test was going to be administered or if it was even going to be administered at all,” said Steinberg. “No one knew how to structure study plans; it was stressful.”

Additionally, screened schools are now going to be required to post the rubric they use to rank students online. The ranking will be done by the Education Department’s central office instead of individual schools.


Some, especially those who have advocated for more diversity in schools, are satisfied with these changes, such as the end of geographic preference. However, advocates of school integration are calling for further changes to the screening process and the SHSAT.


On the other hand, many parent groups are glad that the screening process was not removed. They argue that children who benefit from the process gained entry to the school through hard work, not through other advantages such as racial or socio-economic privilege.


The uncertainty of the present circumstances has exposed the varying opinions of parents and children across the city. Although the admissions process has not changed much overall, the pandemic has brought to light issues within the New York City school system that need to be addressed.