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Leveling the Playing Field for High School Choice

Open enrollment systems offer students an opportunity to choose a public high school best suited to their interests and aptitude. But too often, students and their families are overwhelmed by the choices and miss out on the best selections.

A group of researchers, led by Sean P. Corcoran, decided to test whether giving student custom lists of schools and other support would lead to better matches. They chose New York City, where 8th graders  face a dizzying array of 750 high school programs in 440 schools. The students can rank as many as 12 programs on their applications, but many don't get their first choice or end up in a struggling school. Working in 165 middle schools serving 20,000 8th grade students, the research team provided custom lists with a mix of nearby schools, all with graduation rates at or above the citywide average of 70 percent.

They found that students provided with these custom lists were more likely to apply to the schools on the list than students in the control group. They were also more likely to match to their first choice of high schools and less likely to match to an unsuitable school with a low graduation rate. Some follow-up interventions, such as text message reminders, didn't work as well.

The effort was particularly effective in supporting students from non-English speaking households, who were about half the sample and used the lists more than other students. While the effort was aimed at supporting disadvantaged students, the researchers found that all students used the lists. In fact, higher-achieving students applied to more schools on the lists than lower-achieving students did. White and Asian students were also more likely to use the lists than black and Hispanic students. While the intervention supported better choices for many students, it's not clear how well it leveled the playing field.