Screening: A Form of Academic Tracking that Creates Racial Disparities

By Natalia Figueredo

Despite it being one of the most diverse cities nationwide, New York City continues to create barriers that cause school segregation. Academic tracking, which is defined as the grouping of students based on their academic ability, has been a practice that continues to foster racial disparities within schools, but it has also become present on a larger scale. The screening of students into high schools based on requirements is a form of academic tracking that separates groups of students by schools, generating more disadvantages for Black and Hispanic students.

In New York, students have the opportunity to choose up to 12 options for high school preferences, an initiative created with the goal of giving every student an opportunity to attend a “good school”. However, with the screening process, that goal has been derailed. I first became aware of tracking in the form of screening when I received my high school acceptance. During the high school application process, my friends and I were not aware of the opportunities or requirements certain schools offered and desired. We based our 12 preferences on non-academic factors such as proximity to our homes. None of us had fully researched the academic advantages of each school, if any. Our number one choice was Forest Hills High School. We were all from the same neighborhood, from low-income backgrounds, and Latinas. We all had the same chance right? Yet, I was the only one out of my seven friends who received an acceptance. The school we chose was screened and I got in, all because I had a 90 or above in my classes and perfect attendance.

The impact of this screened process affected many of my friends, as it not only reinforced their beliefs caused by stereotypes that create negative perceptions of students of color, but it also placed them in schools that lacked resources for their academic growth. Requirements such as “perfect attendance” and “90 or above classes” do not take into consideration the struggles of low-income students of color. I witnessed many of my friends skip school, not because they were “bad” but because they had to take care of their younger siblings or other life circumstances. Also, many of my friends could not receive 90 or above on all their classes because they did not have accessibility to tutors or additional help due lack of resources. In order to have a more fair education system, academic tracking in general needs to be eliminated from public schools, but additionally, screening of students into schools based on requirements need to either be more general and take into consideration the external factors that affect Black and Hispanic students, or be banned completely. These strategies can increase the percentages of Black and Hispanic students in schools with more resources.

A study done by Measure of America on graduation rates demonstrates that in New York City, Black and Hispanic students are at high risk of not graduating in 4 years. Not surprisingly, the most common admissions method for both these groups of students are unscreened schools. Queens serves as a good example of how screening disproportionately affects students of color within NYC. Queens is considered one of the most diverse places in the nation. The racial breakdown is 25.6% White, 26.8% Hispanic, 18.3% Black, 24.8% Asian, and 4.5% other. Despite this diversity, the school system continues to be segregated. Queens has the largest number of students attending unscreened schools and the majority of them are Black and Hispanic. On the other hand, the majority of the students attending the best, screened schools are White and Asian students. By comparing the highest and lowest ranked schools in this borough, I demonstrate how screening is a form of academic tracking that increases segregation within the New York school system.

The highest ranked, non-specialized school in Queens is Townsend Harris High School, which is ranked #5 out of 1210 New York high schools. This is a screened school that requires good attendance, 3 or 4 scores in standardized tests, and grades of 90 or above in core academic subjects. The student racial breakdown is 57.6% Asian, 21.8% White, 12% Hispanic, 5.7% African American, and 2.3% other. Asian and White students make up the majority of the population. The school offers a connection to Queens college, through which professors conduct monthly lectures and help develop curriculum for some classes. It also offers a variety of Advanced Placement (AP) courses that promote higher education, as well as advanced regents diplomas which are awarded if students take 9 or more state exams in comparison to the 5 mandatory to graduate high school. The resources available to these students are far beyond a non-screened schools and places White and Asian students at an advantage. The results are demonstrated in terms of graduation rates, where 100% of the students graduate in 4 years and about 99% of those students graduate with advanced regents diploma.

Figure 1: Enrollment of students by race at Townsend Harris High School

On the other hand, Frederick Douglass Academy VI High School is the lowest ranked school in Queens. It is considered #1191 out of 1210 New York high schools. There are no specific criteria to be admitted into the school and all NYC residents could enroll their children if they wanted to. The student racial breakdown is of 59.8% African-American, 36.0% Hispanic, 1.1% Asian, and 1.1% White. This school is predominantly composed of  Hispanic and Black students. It is a low performing school, as the regents scores are very low in comparison to the other New York high schools. There are no AP courses offered, 43% of the students graduate in 4 years and 0% graduate with advanced regents diplomas. These students are not exposed to the same resources that the students in Townsend Harris High School have, leading to a continuous route of disadvantages- all because they did not have the requirements to be exposed to the higher ranked schools.

Figure 2: Enrollment of students by race at Frederick Douglass Academy VI High School

The comparison between these two schools demonstrates the racial disparities created by screened schools. The screened school had higher numbers in Asian and White students, higher regents test scores, higher percentages of advanced regents diploma, and more resources that led to higher education. On the other hand, the unscreened school had higher numbers of Hispanic and Black students, low regents scores, no advanced regents diplomas, and no additional resources. Through screening, children across the city are put into a competition that does not take into consideration their personal circumstances or socioeconomic status. Children that tend to have more resources are exposed to the high school application process at an early age and have more opportunities to learn about the requirements to enter those spaces. Unsurprisingly, majority of these students tend part of middle and upper class Asian and White families. On the contrary, students with less resources tend to be low-income Black and Hispanic students. The screening of schools directly affects all students, leading to negative effects on minority students.

By incorporating screened schools, NYC’s initiative to provide children with accessibility to good schools is completely false, and this is just one example of how academic tracking deliberately changes the paths of certain students. The screening of students into schools directly targets students with higher resources, students who tend to be White or Asian. Although Mayor de Blasio has said that no more screened schools will be opened, there has been no push to ban screening in current schools. In order to increase accessibility of resources to Black and Hispanic students, the screening process should be eliminated. Brooklyn can serve as an example to Queens, as the borough has eliminated screening and has witnessed a positive change. Moreover, a lottery system should be emplaced to take into consideration students from low-income backgrounds despite their circumstances and to expose them more resources. A lottery system can increase diversity and integration in classrooms and can provide opportunities for all students. Lastly, there should be more focus on the equity of funds allocated to each school in Queens, giving the same accessibility to resources to all of students across the borough despite their race and the school they attend. Taking these initiatives to change the educational system can be a key factor to desegregating schools within Queens, and within New York.

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