In September 2012, the NAACP’s legal arm joined forces with two other advocacy groups to file a federal civil rights complaint against New York City’s public school system. The issue at hand was—and still is—the city’s nine elite public high schools. Like most public high schools in the city, these schools can choose who attends. But the elite schools are their own animal: Whereas other schools look at a range of criteria to determine students’ eligibility, eight of these nine elite institutions admit applicants based exclusively on how the students score on a rigorous, two-and-a-half-hour-long standardized test.

The test-only admissions policy is touted by supporters as a tactic that promotes fairness and offers the best way to identify the city’s most gifted students. But the complaint, which is still pending, tells a different story—one of modern-day segregation, in which poor kids of color are getting left behind.

"As a result of the [New York City Department of Education’s] exclusive, unjustified, and singular reliance on the [exam], many fully qualified, high-potential students are denied access to the life-changing experiences that the Specialized High Schools offer," the complaint says. "In a community as diverse as New York City, it is particularly critical that these pathways to leadership be ‘visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.’ ... Yet, year after year, thousands of academically talented African-American and Latino students who take the test are denied admission to the Specialized High Schools at rates far higher than those for other racial groups."

But New York City is just one of many cities across the country where this sort of cherry-picking happens. Public schools in cities across the country—schools intended to break down the walls typical of expensive, elite private institutions by opening up access to stimulating, quality education for kids of all means—are closed in their admissions. In other words, kids aren’t just automatically enrolled because they live in the neighborhood—they have to apply to get in. As a result, their student populations are often far less diverse than they should be. And, sometimes, kids who would otherwise be eligible for these schools never get to enjoy them.

New York City epitomizes the shortcomings of such schools, largely because of its unusual test-only policy. Still, although testing is a key force behind those shortcomings, it is one of several culprits when it comes to the flaws of selective enrollment in public education. Selective-admissions policies can easily shortchange disadvantaged kids when they include as criteria such as middle-school attendance records or grade-point averages and fail to consider non-classroom factors, too. Even simply requiring student candidates (and their parents) to be proactive, to take the time to fill out what are often laborious applications risks discriminating against the less fortunate.

National data on selective-admissions schools is limited—so limited that it prompted Chester Finn Jr., president emeritus of the right-leaning Fordham Institute, to conduct his own survey in 2012. The country, he discovered, is home to some 165 of these institutions—"exam schools," as he calls them—or 1 percent of all public high schools. These schools, some of which are centuries old, are concentrated in 31 states, including nearly three dozen total in New York City, Chicago, and Boston alone. All but three of these 31 states are located in the eastern half of the country, the outliers being California, Nevada, and Arizona. (Meanwhile, nearly half of all states have specific laws that set priorities for districts to follow when accepting students for open enrollment, according to the Education Commission of the States.)

Selective-admissions programs are in part symptomatic of a broader, three-decade-old reform movement that has aimed to overcome the "mediocre educational performance" of the country’s students as highlighted in the landmark report "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." They’re also an example of "school choice," the tenet that parents should have options when it comes to their kids’ education, even when it’s free. And according to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, cities often have multiple incentives for retaining or establishing selective-admissions high schools.

"The idea was that, if you wanted to provide an excellent, gifted, and talented education for public school students, one could do a better job of that if in large cities there were specialized schools that would bring academically talented students together," said Kahlenberg, who opposes test-only admissions policies such as those in New York City. Secondly, selective-enrollment schools "are very sought after by upper-middle class people who might not consider using public schools if it weren’t for the selective-enrollment institutions. Essentially, it’s a way of ensuring greater participation from wealthier families who might otherwise move to the suburbs."

But "the trick," he said, "is you don’t want the selective-enrollment schools to become enclaves of privilege that are separate and unequal from the rest of the system."

Selective-enrollment high schools have long been caught at the center of legal debates over the fairness of their admissions policies. Early efforts to ensure desegregation at these schools resulted in racial quotas in Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, but those policies were eventually all lifted, in large part because of lawsuits challenging their constitutionality.

Now, many of these selective-enrollment institutions face a new set of dilemmas as they come under fire for admitting far smaller percentages of minority students than other public schools. And, as Betheny Gross, a senior research analyst at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, noted, getting into selective-enrollment schools typically requires having proactive parents who know how to navigate the system—a resource many children lack.

"There are kids whose parents aren’t as mobilized or might not be as informed," said Gross, who commended selective schools that automatically screen all students in their district for eligibility, not just the ones who went out of their way to take an admissions test. "There’s an entry layer that has nothing to do with the kid’s school level."

The clashes over selective-admissions policies reflect the challenges districts face in reconciling two goals that are often diametrically opposed: academic achievement and equity. How can a school be color blind while simultaneously promoting educational access and diversity? Or, as Kahlenberg phrased it, "How do you recognize excellence on the one hand and promote genuine equal opportunity on the other?" But perhaps more importantly, the dilemma begs another question: Can a fair selective-admissions system for public schools even exist?

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The ongoing tug-of-wars over selective-admissions and racial diversity—including the battle currently being waged in New York City—are a reminder that urban school districts are nowhere near coming up with a model that works well and raises all students. The fact remains that many of these schools look and operate like elite schools exclusive to elite families.

Take Boston Latin School, which is arguably Massachusetts’ most prestigious public school and said to be the oldest in the country.* At Boston Latin, whites make up 48 percent of the student population, while blacks and Latinos collectively amount to just 20 percent. The rest identify as Asian or multiracial. Compare that with Boston’s public school population as a whole, in which three-fourths of students are black or Latino, while just 14 percent are white. And unlike New York City’s elite schools, Boston’s three selective institutions look at GPA on top of test scores. Until the late ’90s, the schools also factored in race, enrolling half of its students based on a combination of their academics and ethnic background, but a lawsuit eventually forced the schools to drop race-based admissions completely.

The numbers are even more staggering in New York City. The city is home to the largest school district in the country, serving more than 1 million kids, including roughly 300,000 high school students. Unlike some other school districts, in New York City geography rarely decides where a student enrolls. Instead, students have to apply to attend one of the city’s 400 or so public high schools, many of which are specialized or geared around specific academic objectives: vocational training programs, for example, or schools designed for newly arrived immigrants who speak English as a second language.

Every fall, the city’s eighth graders must submit their applications, listing as many as 12 of their preferred high schools. The Department of Education then matches students with one of their chosen schools based on a range of factors that vary depending largely on schools’ admissions policies and available seats. Some of these schools have relatively demanding admissions standards, requiring applicants to submit portfolios and transcripts or audition, while others simply randomly select their students or give preference to applicants who attend open houses.

But on top of these 12 choices, students can also apply to one of the elite public high schools, which are so selective that the odds of getting in are in the single digits—as low as 3 percent. All but one of these nine "specialized high schools" rely exclusively on exam scores to determine students’ eligibility—a custom that’s garnered criticism amid growing skepticism of over-testing in schools and the widespread belief that the focus on assessments effectively bars access for poor kids and different kinds of learners. (The ninth school—LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts—offers admission based on auditions or portfolio assessments.)

These are schools renowned for their academic prowess and widely seen as conduits to the country’s top colleges. But, as the NAACP complaint demonstrates, they’re also notorious for their lack of racial diversity, enrolling disproportionate numbers of white and, in particular, Asian students, who made up 60 percent of the student bodies at these schools last year despite constituting just 15 percent of the city’s total enrollment. The specialized schools—including the Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High School, and Brooklyn Technical High School—all serve very small populations of black and Latino students. Blacks and Latinos made up just 7 percent and 5 percent of the student bodies at these elite schools last year, respectively, even though the two groups together account for 70 percent of the public school population citywide.

Of course, race isn’t the only factor that comes into play when assessing a school’s diversity. Joyce Szuflita, a private consultant for families trying to navigate the education system in the city, pointed out that many of New York City’s specialized high schools are more socioeconomically diverse than critics make them out to be. At Stuyvesant High, for example, 37 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals (compared to about three-quarters of kids citywide). And sometimes, Szuflita said, the test-only policy can enhance opportunity for certain disadvantaged children who excel at multiple-choice exams or come from families that place an emphasis on test prep over, for example, expensive extracurriculars.   

"It’s not just a simple picture—there’s no one profile in this city," she said. "Those [test-only] schools are serving some first-generation strivers and working-class strivers that some of these other schools are not taking … A lot of the [other types of selective] schools are snagging wealthy, high-performing kids, whatever their race, whereas at those testing schools, many of those struggling parents are working two jobs to be able to afford the test prep."

Still, it’s hard to deny arguments that the test-only admissions policy can serve as a form of de facto discrimination. The multiple-choice exam is so rigorous some students devote entire summers to studying for it, often with the help of private tutors or intensive prep courses that cost thousands of dollars. For many of the brightest students, admission to one of these elite, ostensibly free schools unfortunately comes with too big a price tag. And according to Kahlenberg and Gross, much of the prejudice traces back to the lack of equal educational opportunity in kids’ earlier years, which effectively debunks the notion that a test is the fairest way to assess a student’s eligibility for enrollment. School districts "need to just do a better job preparing kids so that they do all have a better chance and more equal chance at getting admitted," Gross said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to reevaluate the decades-old admissions policies at these elite schools and de-emphasize the testing component. But state legislation introduced this year that would’ve allowed the city to overhaul the schools’ admissions policies—and move away from the test-only approach—gained little traction and ultimately fell flat.

Again, New York City’s specialized high schools are rare because they admit students based solely on their test scores. Meanwhile, most of the country’s selective-admissions public schools look at a range of criteria, such as attendance records, grades, and written portfolios. Some schools, like those in Boston, look at two components. And some districts have stipulations in place that, similar to affirmative action at colleges, at least attempt to retain some semblance of racial and socioeconomic diversity at even the most elite schools.

That’s the case with Chicago’s 10 selective-enrollment schools, which admit students based on both their merit and socioeconomic backgrounds. The city, which is home to the third-largest school district in the country, a few years ago came up with an admissions algorithm that’s designed to reward the academically gifted while ensuring kids from all walks of life are afforded access to the top schools. In 2009, a legal battle brought Chicago’s racial desegregation consent decree to an end, and the new admissions policy was engineered to ensure selective schools remained diverse in a city where, like New York, blacks and Latinos make up the vast majority of the population. (Together, the two groups account for 85 percent of Chicago’s public school student population, while just 9 percent of its pupils identify as white.)

Every student is rated on a 900-point scale based on his or her grades and performance on both the state assessment and admissions test, the latter of which students must be invited to take based on their academic performance in middle school. But students are also categorized into one of four tiers depending on a number of social and economic factors, including their household income, knowledge of English, and family structure.

When it comes to admission to one of the selective schools, most students only compete with their peers in the same tier. A student who lives in a single-parent household and relies on welfare, for example, would in theory rarely contend with a middle-class student for the same seat. Just 30 percent of the seats at each selective school goes to the highest-scoring students, regardless of their tier; the rest, for the most part, are divided among the highest-performing students in each tier. That means the bar is typically set higher for kids in the upper tiers (the fourth tier corresponds with the highest median income) than for those in the lower ones.

Kahlenberg, who worked with officials in Chicago to come up with the current admissions methodology, said he thinks the city’s approach is "the right balance" and offers a creative example of how to proactively promote racial diversity at selective schools without explicitly using race as a factor. "Given the overlap between race and class in American society in cities like Chicago, giving a leg up to economically disadvantaged students will translate into [racial diversity]," he said.

But even schools like those in Chicago that base admission on a range of criteria or proactively admit poorer students can raise questions about the fairness of selective-enrollment in public education. A recent Chicago Sun-Times analysis of the Windy City’s 10 selective schools found that the percentage of white students enrolled in the top four of these institutions has grown over the years since the new admissions policy was put in place in 2010, even making up nearly half of the freshmen enrolled at one of them: Northside College Prep. For comparison’s sake, the 1980 consent decree, which was discontinued following a federal court ruling, stipulated that whites couldn’t account for more than 35 percent of any school’s student population.

The recent phenomenon could in part be explained by caveats in the city’s admissions policy. Kids are placed in tiers based on the census blocks they live in—not on their individual socioeconomic profiles. The Chicago Sun-Times investigation found that low-income students occasionally get placed in the same tier as the city’s wealthiest. For example, Tier 4 includes students who live in the affluent Gold Coast neighborhood—where the median income is nearly $305,000—but it also encompasses those who live near the Halsted area on the South Side, where the median income is about $42,000, according to the paper’s analysis.  Moreover, the tier-based admissions policy isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; school administrators have some discretion over which students to enroll and can choose to admit someone who doesn’t meet the testing criteria.

And in Chicago, not all selective schools look the same. The four highest-ranking schools are essentially "white schools," receiving and enrolling disproportionate numbers of Caucasian applicants, while another four almost exclusively serve minority students. Chicago Alderman Latasha Thomas, who chairs the city council’s Education Committee, recently said the discontinuation of the desegregation decree has resulted in the re-segregation of the city’s schools, according to a Sun-Times report.

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Diversity aside, selective-enrollment high schools also raise questions about what the admissions process can do to an adolescent’s psyche, particularly when it places an inordinate emphasis on testing. Forget Halloween, weekend sleepovers with friends, playing outdoors. For many eighth graders in New York City, the fall is synonymous with tutors and exams, while the spring brings intense competition—and often volatile emotions—over placement in coveted spots at the city’s best high schools.  

“If you can make it through the high school application process, college is a breeze.”

And that’s just the kids: Parents feel the crunch, too, sacrificing their work days to take their children on high school tours and sometimes dipping into their savings to pay for test prep. Of course, the stress that some families undergo would be a luxury for many others—parents who might be so new to the city, or so unfamiliar with the English language, or so overburdened by life’s other problems that they either don’t know how to navigate the morass of tests and applications or simply don’t have the resources to try.

"It’s gallows humor for New York City families," Szuflita said. "If you can make it through the high school application process, college is a breeze."

Indeed, New York City’s district-wide system of selective-admissions high schools—test-only and otherwise—causes headaches for parents and students across the city. "It’s not a perfect system by a long shot," Szuflita said. "If you ask any parent that was going through it right now, they would say it’s absolutely the worst system they ever saw." Some parents have to take off work and tour as many as 20 schools. (That, ironically, is particularly difficult for the ones who work as teachers and are themselves in the classrooms being toured by fellow parents.)  

As for the students, "you’re given a cornucopia of beautiful and horrible choices and then held up, feeling like you’re being assessed and placed and feeling like your life is not your own," Szuflita said. "It feels very uncertain, and it feels like there are great triumphs and disasters." In 2012, according to Szuflita, about half of the more than 77,000 eighth graders who applied to public schools got their first choices, while three-fourths of them got one of their top-three picks. But 10 percent of the students didn’t get a match. That’s nearly 8,000 students.

"With the variety," Szuflita said, "comes tremendous anxiety."

"It’s lovely to have the variety; some of these schools are really unique and spectacular choices," Szuflita continued. "But if you don’t get that placement you feel stricken."

*This post originally referred to Boston Latin School as Boston Latin Academy, which is a different selective-admissions school than the one highlighted in this article. We regret the error.