Excerpted From: Richard R. Buery, Jr., Public School Admissions and the Myth of Meritocracy: How and Why Screened Public School Admissions Promote Segregation, 95 New York University Law Review Online 101 (April, 2020) (85 Footnotes) (Full Document)


RichardRBueryJrIn America, kindergarten through 12th grade public education (“K12 education”) remains deeply segregated, and those on the wrong side are denied opportunity. “On every measure of achievement and attainment, race continues to be a salient factor in defining and dividing the American student population.” Children of color in America are more likely to attend under-resourced, struggling schools and have poor educational outcomes, and are less likely to have economic opportunity in adulthood.

School segregation is largely a function of residential segregation and the use of political boundaries to sort students on the basis of that segregation. Segregated schools then contribute to the segregation of opportunity, as privileged children--disproportionately white and wealthy--attend separate schools that reinforce their privilege. But residential segregation is not the sole driver of school segregation. The prevalence of screened K12 schools can also be a significant factor. Screened K12 schools use academic screens, including standardized tests, grades, class rank, essays, portfolio reviews, teacher recommendations, school attendance, or other academic factors, either in isolation or combination, to determine which students are admitted. Because white and wealthy students are more likely to perform well on these screens, especially those relying heavily on standardized tests, school systems using admissions screens are more likely to be segregated. Although many communities have reduced their reliance on admissions screens, these policies often persist despite their segregative impact. For example, in New York City, efforts to reduce reliance on admissions screens have faltered.

Why are academic screens so durable despite their impact on segregation? One reason is America's obsession with the meritocracy. National news stories such as the college admissions scandal and the challenge to Harvard's race-conscious admissions practices have shown how merit-based admissions in higher education is largely a cover for privilege. We now know that nearly thirty percent of Harvard's entering class are athletes, legacies, the children of faculty or staff, or students otherwise of interest to Harvard because of who their parents are. But this growing awareness of the “[m]yth of [m]eritocracy” in higher education has not fully extended to screened K12 admissions.

This Article argues that Americans embrace three conceptions of merit which shield these screens from proper scrutiny. The first is individual merit--the idea that students with greater ability or achievement deserve access to better schools. The second is systems merit--the idea that poor student performance on an assessment is a failure of the system that prepared the student for the assessment. The third is group merit--the idea that members of some groups simply possess less ability. Each of these ideas has deep roots in the American psyche. And while the first two are more sympathetic than the third, each has a pernicious impact on perpetuating racial inequality in K12 public education because each preserves a status quo that undermines what should be K12's central mission: to allow every student access to opportunity. The Article then discusses New York City public school admissions. New York City is unusual: No other American school system relies so extensively on academic screens to make admissions decisions. The Article considers the impact those screens have on New York City K12 admissions and explores how these three conceptions of merit impact public debate on their continued use. Only by directly confronting the myth of meritocracy can we make meaningful progress towards expanding equal educational opportunity for all students.

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Testing can help teachers and parents know whether students are learning, which in turn helps teachers and parents support students and gives teachers powerful feedback on their practice. Testing can help us evaluate the quality of our schools and school systems and give shape to the ways in which our country continues to disinvest in poor students, immigrant students, special education students, English-language learners, and students of color. When used with other measures, testing can be a valid tool for identifying students with particular gifts and challenges and ensuring that all students are offered the opportunity to learn in beneficial environments.

But it is also true that by importing the bluntest tools of the so-called meritocracy into K12 admissions, New York City and other jurisdictions are perpetuating the sins at the center of America's disgraceful educational history. We do not need to reject standardized testing and other academic screens in K12 admissions wholesale. To do so would be inconsistent with a commitment to excellence and to the important work of holding institutions accountable for their responsibilities to all students. But we must apply deeper scrutiny to the screens we use, how they are used, and the impact they have.

Admissions practices that offer value in higher education may be nonsensical when applied to kindergartners. A standardized test may provide an admissions officer with a useful data point, but relying on that test to the exclusion of all other data may be an exercise of willful ignorance. Meeting the individualized needs of all students, including those who would benefit from accelerated learning in some disciplines, is good pedagogy. But thinking that some students are “gifted” in all domains and some are not, and separating those students into schools that challenge the former and fail the latter, is malpractice. When that malpractice leads to results that are plainly inconsistent with the distribution of intelligence and talent among all children, the continued reliance on those practices is racist.

Providing equal educational opportunity to all of America's children, including those that have been historically excluded from that opportunity, is one of the central challenges facing our nation, 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education and more than four centuries after Black children began making their way to America. We must reckon with the role that the myth of meritocracy plays in preventing that opportunity.

Richard R. Buery, Jr., Chief of Policy and Public Affairs, KIPP Foundation; Public Service Fellow, Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, New York University.