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School Choice Doesn't Always Diversify Competitive High Schools, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz, originally posted at High School and Beyond

A new study of New York City's high school choice system shows that even high-achieving students from lower-performing middle schools often don't aim for the most competitive high schools, a finding that raises questions about how well the choice system, by itself, expands students' options.

The report by the city's Independent Budget Office says the computer algorithm that matches the city's 80,000 applicants with their top choices works well. It's what happens before students make those choices that exerts a powerful influence on the outcomes.

The academic achievement level of their middle school turns out to be a key predictor of which high schools students put at the tops of their lists. Students from lower-performing middle schools were less likely than students from higher-performing schools to aim for the city's more competitive high schools.

And that's regardless of a student's own academic performance. Even high-performing students from lower-performing middle schools fit the pattern of not reaching as high as academically strong peers from better-performing middle schools. (The study used students' scores on math tests as proxies for achievement level.)

The report paints a picture of school environments that exert a potent influence on the way students think about high school, with particular mentions of the roles that peers' choices and counseling can make in students' decisions. Those factors appear to be entangled with—or perhaps reflected by—a school's academic performance level.

The pattern can affect students' likelihood of finishing high school. The report says that by choosing less-selective high schools, students are choosing schools that tend to have lower graduation rates.

High school applicants whose test scores ranked in the bottom third and also attended middle schools ranked in the bottom third citywide chose high schools with an average graduation rate of 74 percent. But students with similar academic profiles who attended middle schools in the top third citywide chose high schools with average graduation rates of 80 percent, the report says.

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