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Competitive high school admissions policies send students strong messages about their worth. Students are listening.

Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Perry High School was just out of Davea’s reach.

“Perry” is what I call an award-winning, academically selective high school in Chicago. Its course offerings include micro- and macro-economics, African-American literature, Arabic, and zoology. It bursts with winning athletic and academic teams. Nearly all of its students go on to four-year colleges.

Davea’s standardized test scores qualified her to take the entrance exam, but Perry did not admit her.

I’ve interviewed dozens of students like Davea — students motivated to attend elite public high schools but who were ultimately turned away. From 2013 to 2015, wanting to learn how young people experience competitive admissions policy, I followed 36 eighth-graders through the high school application process in Chicago, where students chose from over 130 high school options, including academically selective schools like Perry. (When writing about my research, I use pseudonyms for students, teachers, and high schools.)

Davea wasn’t alone in facing rejection; Perry turned away 90% of its over 12,000 applicants. But Davea took this rejection as a sign of her own limited capacity.

“I wish I could do better like them,” she said of her peers who got in. She described students at schools like Perry as “more advanced,” “smarter than others,” and “focused,” implying that she was none of those things.

Davea reluctantly chose an open-enrollment, neighborhood school, saying it had “some smart kids.” Looking back at her bid for Perry, she concluded, “I set too high of standards for myself.”

Plenty of research indicates that Black, Latinx, lower-income, and English language learners are underrepresented in high-performing schools that require competition to access them. Recent public and political controversy over the admission of seven Black students to Stuyvesant High School, out of an incoming class of 895, underscores this painfully familiar point. Davea, a lower-income Black student, is part of this story.

My research shows that we need to look more closely at what the competitive admissions process does to young people. Not only does competitive admissions policy put prized educational opportunities beyond the reach of many students, but it also sends incomplete messages about students’ strengths and promise. Davea, for one, internalized her rejection; she viewed it, inaccurately, as a representation of who she was and could be as a student.

Like Davea, the diverse group of teens whom I interviewed tied admissions results to their self-image — and to their perception of others as well. They used words like “high-standard kids,” “good people,” and “the best students” to describe elite public high school students. They also characterized students at open-enrollment, nonselective schools as “lazy,” ”hoodlums,” “not the brightest,” and “dumpster kids.” Even students who ended up at nonselective high schools made these same distinctions.

On the whole, students accepted and sometimes defended this narrative, even if they disliked their own admissions results. They felt they got into the schools they deserved. Dream school? Deserved it. Backup school? Deserved it. Dreaded school? Deserved it.

As young people forging their identities, eager to establish who they are becoming, my study’s participants took the messages they received from their school district — including acceptances, rejections, and academic eligibility (or ineligibility) to apply to different schools — as what Beverly Daniel Tatum calls “identity cues.”

Davea’s rejection by Perry and enrollment at a neighborhood school both stood as identity cues. So did Paul’s acceptances. Paul was originally rejected by Thompson High School, an even more selective school than Perry (which did accept him). He successfully appealed that rejection and was also admitted to an elite private school — actions that required his family’s time and money. But when asked what kind of student he was, he responded, “I don’t want to get too, like, self-centered and stuff, but I’d say I’m intelligent. And I did get into Thompson and Perry and St. Thomas.” He saw students at Jewell, Davea’s high school, as people who “didn’t really care about which high school they went to.” Paul connected his admissions results (again, inaccurately) to his sense of self, and he did the same to people whom he had never met.

Unfortunately, since Chicago’s selective-enrollment high schools disproportionately enroll white and Asian students while its open-enrollment neighborhood schools disproportionately enroll Black and Latinx students, the identity cues that Paul, Davea, and thousands of others draw from competitive admissions are bound together with race, even if that is not what school districts intend.

Americans have a romance with competition, winners, and winning. But it’s an unhealthy relationship. We justify academic competition by viewing the “winners” as people who deserve their coveted spots, and “losers” as those who just didn’t measure up. Along the way, we discount or outright ignore how powerful social forces — like neighborhood and school segregation, racial and cultural bias in many standardized tests, growing income inequality, and inequitable pre-K-8 learning opportunities — press a thumb on the scale that weighs applicants’ relative merits. These factors mattered in Davea’s and Paul’s results, but their self-evaluation focused solely on their own so-called intelligence.

Many New York City activists, parents, and government officials have begun to call for change, seeking to expand access to the city’s most competitive high schools for Black and Latinx students or even do away with competitive admissions altogether. The city’s School Diversity Advisory Group’s recent report refers to competitive admissions policies as “exclusionary” and urges inclusionary admissions practices for academically selective schools in order to increase those schools’ racial and socio-economic diversity.

We must remember that most of the changes being discussed — short of ending competitive admissions — will still leave students harshly sizing up themselves and others. Parents, educators, and mentors should talk thoughtfully with young people about these policies. As students grapple with what competitive admissions means for them, they will benefit from support that acknowledges these processes’ inherently limited ability to assess their strengths, potential, work ethic, or intelligence.

Young people need experiences with schools that help them grow — not ones that mislead, prematurely corral, or discourage them.

Kate Phillippo is an associate professor of cultural and educational policy studies at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education. She is also the author of “A Contest With No Winners: How Students Experience Competitive School Choice” (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). She is president of the Sociology of Education Association.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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