Is Selective Admission A School Improvement Plan?

The Washington Post reports that parents and alumni of D.C.’s Dunbar High School have quietly been putting together a proposal to revitalize what the article calls "one of the District's worst performing schools."

Those behind the proposal are not ready to speak about it publicly, and details are still very thin, but the Post article reports that it calls for greater flexibility in hiring, spending and other core policies. Moreover, the core of the plan – or at least its most drastic element - is to make Dunbar a selective high school, to which students must apply and be accepted, presumably based on testing results and other performance indicators (the story characterizes the proposal as a whole with the term “autonomy”). I will offer no opinion as to whether this conversion, if it is indeed submitted to the District for consideration, is a good idea. That will be up to administrators, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders.

I am, however, a bit struck by two interrelated aspects of this story. The first is the unquestioned characterization of Dunbar as a “low performing” or “struggling” school. This fateful label appears to be based mostly on the school’s proficiency rates, which are indeed dismally low – 20 percent in math and 29 percent in reading.

As we’ve discussed many times, however, raw proficiency rates are one means (albeit a distorted means) of describing student performance on tests, but they tell you almost nothing about the performance of a school. Dunbar students enter the school performing well below the district average, and so overall rates might remain low even if the school is remarkably effective in boosting performance (to the reporter's credit, the Post article actually mentions this). This is why growth-based measures, though themselves incomplete and not without their limitations, are a much more fair and valid means of approximating actual school performance, as they are geared toward measuring students’ progress while attending.

And, by this growth standard, Dunbar may not be quite as bad as it seems. According to the district’s own metrics, the high school’s growth percentiles are 31 in math and 45 in reading, compared with district averages of 46 and 47, respectively. Granted, putting aside all the issues with growth percentiles, these results are far from acceptable, particularly in math, and particularly for a school serving students who so badly need to catch up. They may not, however, be bad enough to slap the “low-performing” label on Dunbar without qualification.

This brings us to the second aspect of this story that I would like to discuss – the somewhat strange idea of revitalizing or improving a school by implementing a selective application process. This form of institutionalized cherrypicking of students is controversial, but it is not unreasonable to argue that some districts might be well-served by maintaining a small sector of schools devoted to serving high-performing students.

That said, I’m not sure I would characterize converting Dunbar into one of these schools as some kind of turnaround or improvement plan (in fairness, to reiterate, those behind the proposal have not commented on it, and so this characterization is from the Post article, not from them).

Certainly, the conversion might once again make Dunbar one of the more attractive high schools in the district, but it wouldn’t necessarily improve the school’s effectiveness, any more than a hospital would necessarily improve by only admitting healthy patients.

Moreover, to the degree you believe in the idea that schools are supposed to serve all comers as best they can, selective application processes, though they (arguably) have their place, should be undertaken with extreme caution. There are thousands of students, present and future, in Dunbar’s area that might not win admission, and they are, needless to say, an extremely important consideration. A school improvement plan per se might focus on figuring out how better to serve these students, many of whom are most in need of education opportunity and support, rather than forcing them attend other schools, which may or may not be equipped to accommodate them.

Finally, note that, if this proposal is submitted and accepted (both outcomes are still highly uncertain), and if Dunbar starts selecting students based on testing results and other metrics, there is little doubt that its proficiency rates would increase, probably dramatically. This illustrates the complete inappropriateness of the absolute proficiency rates in judging school performance, as well as how it conflates school and student performance – the school’s measured “performance” would improve overnight solely because it began selecting who could attend.

- Matt Di Carlo