Signals and standards

March 24, 2006

Western High School students and parents are rightly upset by the Baltimore school system's decision to reduce admission requirements for half of the school's incoming class. It's a puzzling move that sends a mixed message about the value of learning and seems to contradict the system's efforts to raise, rather than lower, standards.

In existence since 1844, Western is the oldest all-girls public high school in the country and one of Baltimore's top high schools, with a college acceptance rate of 100 percent. But according to an article by The Sun's Sara Neufeld, 125 of 250 students now slated for the next entering class in August don't meet the school's rigorous admissions standards, a move that could be a setup for disaster. It's one thing to admit some students with great potential who may fall slightly short of a defined cutoff point. But it's foolhardy to take half a class with shaky credentials, potentially pulling down and demoralizing the top-flight students and setting up the marginal students for failure.

The decision to reduce standards at Western for so many students has been attributed to Frank DeStefano, the system's deputy chief academic officer, but it's unclear under whose authority he was acting or how much he consulted with others. Many students, officers of the school PTA and members of the city school board expressed surprise. Some Western advocates have disputed the contention that the school did not attract enough qualified applicants, saying that the class could have been filled either with applicants who did not get into City College or Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Baltimore's other selective citywide public high schools, or with applicants from private schools who were reportedly turned away.

Diluting Western's admissions criteria doesn't make much sense in the midst of the school system's laudable high school reform effort, which has led to the breakup of large, zoned high schools and the creation of smaller, more academically robust and often themed schools. These new learning academies are increasingly competing for the same top students as the elite citywide schools.

As the system similarly tries to improve the dismal ranking of its middle schools, it should be sending consistent signals that the performance bar is being set higher, not lower.

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