As eighth-graders across Baltimore vie for spots in the city’s best high schools, student leaders say the district’s admission process still puts classmates learning English at a disadvantage — two years after students first flagged the problems.
SOMOS, a student group at Baltimore City College High School, says the way the district determines eligibility for its most selective schools makes it more difficult for students whose second language is English to win entrance.
As a result, though English learners make up roughly 7% of Baltimore students as a whole, they constitute fewer than 1% of students at schools like City College, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Western High School and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.
District officials argue they have taken steps to support English learners, but reevaluating entrance criteria will take time and will be part of a broader examination of how students are accepted into the most selective schools.
“We need to look at the whole choice process for the entire district," said Tina Hike-Hubbard, the schools system’s chief of communications and community engagement. “I personally am concerned that we need to fix it for the entire district and think about how we create equity in a better way for all of our kids.”
While SOMOS agrees, it feels the district has not responded with urgency or adopted a concrete solution to address the disparities.
“I don’t want to graduate knowing that so many kids behind me, so many kids who are still coming into middle school, are not going to have a fair system,” said Star Camano-Flores, a City College senior who was a sophomore when SOMOS raised the matter to the district and city council in March 2017.
SOMOS students argue that the current formula the district uses to determine eligibility into “entrance criteria” schools is creating this disparity. Students are scored based on standardized test scores in English and math, overall grades and attendance.
The calculation varies by school, but students who want to get into Baltimore City College and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute need to score significantly higher composite scores to be admitted.
In 2018, SOMOS discovered that some English learners had received low composite scores despite having high grades.
The district promised the students they would look into the issue, and an internal review determined that recently arrived students who were exempt from taking the English portion of the standardized test had received zeros under the formula, pulling down their composite scores and ruling out any chance of attending a highly selective school.
“I was sitting in my room every day crying,” said Samreen Sheraz, who was shocked when she and her twin brother, Samarkhawaja, were rejected by City College. She was valedictorian of her class and he had the second-highest grades.
The district reevaluated the scores of eighth-grade students learning English and determined 24 students were eligible to attend highly selective schools, including City College for the Sheraz siblings.
English learners represent one of the fastest-growing segments of public school enrollment in Maryland, according to research done by the University of Maryland College of Education.
And while enrollment has declined in the city’s school system, the immigrant population has grown.
Since 2011, the number of English learners more than doubled to 6,000 students from about 2,500, according to district data.
Currently, the majority of high school English learners attend two schools where language services are bolstered: Patterson High School, where they make up roughly 35% of the student population, and Digital Harbor High School, where they make up about 21% of students.
Parents are choosing for their students to attend these schools, Hike-Hubbard said. She also refuted the notion that attending schools like Patterson or Digital will not lead to a college education.
But for some parents who have just arrived in the country speaking another language, understanding how to navigate the city’s high school choice process might be difficult.
“I think if there is a precedent that students [learning English] are going to be able to get into City, to Poly, to Western, then families are going to want to send their students here," said Franca Muller Paz, a teacher at City College and adviser for SOMOS students. “To think that just because they don’t speak English well enough, they don’t get the opportunity to be here — that felt deeply unfair.”
Advocates for equitable education say the reality is that some high schools in Baltimore prepare students for very different outcomes.
“We have high schools like City and Poly and School for the Arts that are preparing students consistently for high impact career choices or college outcomes and then we have a lot of high school capacity where graduation rates aren’t where they could be. ... So this issue tends to bring it into stark relief,” said Taylor Stewart, the Maryland director at Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.
After the students brought the issue to light the district now reevaluates recently arrived students based on teacher recommendations using scores from another test, known as i-Ready, according to Lara Ohanian, director of differentiated learning in Baltimore City Public School’s Office of Teaching and Learning. The district plans to continue the reevaluation process this school year, Ohanian said.
However, the students say using the i-Ready exam score isn’t a solution because the exam tracks academic progress but doesn’t allow for accommodations — such as a bilingual dictionary — like other state exams as required by law. Students also weren’t told before taking the exam that this test could affect their ability to get into a high-quality school.
Ohanian said using the student’s latest i-Ready scores ensures they have a chance to improve their score as their language improves during the school year.
In a recent meeting with SOMOS, district officials proposed that they solve this issue by administering the assessment in a more “high-stakes environment" and providing bilingual dictionaries in the district’s most common languages and an interpreter.
However, the students and some teachers argue this solution doesn’t solve the issue of English proficiency being a barrier to access the city’s top schools.
“The process in effect [selects] for English ability, not for academic ability, and that’s the problem,” said Zach Taylor, a middle school teacher and the middle school vice president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.
And while most families find out in March what schools have accepted their student, families of students learning English who use i-Ready results don’t find out until the summer. By that time some families already will have made the decision to move out of the city, Paz said.
“There’s reputations for certain schools. If your parents think it’s a bad school, they have two ideas in mind. Either you move to the county, you get a better education and you go to a better school, or you just don’t go to school. You start getting a job," said Scarleth Gutierres, a recent city grad and one of the students who first met with the district.
The students have developed various solutions based on data, research, and input from students and ESOL teachers. They asked that the district give English learners the test in their native language and in English to get a better understanding of their academic capabilities. But school officials say few tests are available in other languages, and if they are, Spanish is the only other choice.
The students have also proposed that the district provide all eighth-grade English learners with oral interpreters during standardized tests or to compare the academic achievements to other English learners.
Baltimore isn’t the only district considering changes to its high school admissions requirements.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to revamp how eight specialized high schools determine admission but faced legal challenges. He is now considering a recommended citywide plan to cut most gifted and talented programs that draw mostly white and Asian students.
In October, the D.C. public school system announced it would eliminate testing requirements for the city’s selective high schools. In Boston, the NAACP and Lawyers for Civil Rights are asking the city to change admissions requirements to three selective high schools.
“There’s a lot of implications that I think we’re going to have to wrestle with together about what we as a city believe about entrance criteria period," said Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises at a recent school board meeting, “Maybe it’s time to have a much broader equity discussion."
SOMOS students want the district to act immediately, saying the admissions criteria are a violation of their civil rights, pointing to the Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974, which prevents school districts from excluding students learning English from participating equally in state and district educational programs.
The students presented their solutions at Tuesday’s school board policy committee meeting on equity and were thanked by the board and told their input would help guide the work the district is doing.
"There’s no commitment to solving the problem for students right now, unfortunately,” Paz said.
The school board’s next policy meeting is January 21st and the school choice application deadline for the upcoming school year is January 17.