Don’t shout “algorithm conspiracy!” in crowed middle school

It has been brought to my attention that there is a belief among 8th grade parents that the students who score into the specialized HS get their pick of the high schools and the rest of the students get their left-overs.

To the best of my knowledge this is untrue. I have been chasing the details of this process for years, and here is what I understand from talking to the people who understand the algorithm, the timing of the running of the algorithm and the people at the DOE who work in the secret magic cave where the computers do their work.

First, just to throw a trickle of water on this fire, the DOE can be accused of a lot of things but no one can doubt that they go to crazy lengths to try to be fair and whether they succeed or not (and often they don’t), the conspiracy theorists can calm themselves knowing that this is one of the DOE’s first mandates.

  • Central enrollment receives everyone’s application in Dec.
  • The schools do not know how you ranked them (and they will never know). The schools look at all the students that have placed them on the app somewhere and they internally rank them. All schools “over offer” on their private wish list of students, because they know (from vast past experience) the percentages of students who will opt out for a specialized hs choice. If there is a discrepancy from year to year, there may be some overcrowding in the specialized hs or the 1in12 list school. It happens.
  • The algorithm is run for everyone in the beginning of the year and it is designed to benefit the student and their preferences. Really, I had a guy from Harvard explain it to me. It goes down the student’s list and matches them with their highest choice school that has put them on the school’s internal student wish list (plus the location priorities – that was Millennium’s fatal flaw last year) and places everyone – it doesn’t care or know who took the SHSAT, what score they got or who their favorite Beatle is.
  • In January the DOE opens new schools. It is possible for all students to resubmit an application to include a new school or two. It is an opportunity for students who have moved into the city after the app deadline and independent school students who have lost their placements to try for a seat.
  • In a totally separate process, the SHSAT is scored and the students are placed into the specialized hs by their test score. Then the DOE sends out a letter with the specialized hs seat and the 1 in 12 hs seat for the student to decide which one they would prefer. Remember, all the other students are already placed, they just don’t hear about their seat early. I know for certain that there are students who are placed in specialized high schools who do not get their first choice. I know for certain that there are occasionally some kids who are offered a seat in a specialized hs who don’t receive a 1in12 placement at all. Bad luck, just like the approx.8% of students who aren’t placed in the main round. Lucky for them that they have a specialized or Laguardia as a safety. Here’s where people feel that the specialized students are getting an advantage, in very rare cases the numbers are tweaked slightly if a 1in12 school’s popularity with specialized students will cause an unusual overcrowding, but this is very, very rare because the DOE is already very good at predicting popularity from past numbers and the schools have already considered this in their "over offer" numbers.
  • The algorithm is run again for all remaining students to include these changes, but it is not a giant reshuffle, just fitting in students here and there (do you know anyone who ever resubmitted an app in January?) There would be very little movement if any at the selective school level. It seems that what happened at Bard last year was when the second algorithm was run there was a glitch that said it was full and the previously placed students were dropped. When it became clear, those students where offered seats at Bard even though they had been placed elsewhere.

Note: I asked the guy from Harvard about this scenario about ranking your choices on the app.:

Me: What if a student ranked their 12 choices and put Beacon as #12, and for some reason his 1 to 11 choices didn’t have him on their wish list but Beacon did.

Harvard Guy: He would be placed in Beacon.

The reason that doesn’t happen is only because of the large numbers of eager applicants trying for a small school placement. A small school with many hundreds of qualified applicants placing it as their first choice will likely fill the school before it can reach a lower choice. It is not that the school is being exclusive, it is just that they are lucky to be popular, and we all know that being popular is a big deal in high school.