Public School Admissions and the Myth of Meritocracy: How and Why Screened Public School Admissions Promote Segregation
Public schools in America remain deeply segregated by race, with devastating effects for Black and Latinx students. While residential segregation is a critical driver of school segregation, the prevalence of screened admissions practices can also play a devastating role in driving racial segregation in public schools. New York City, one of the most segregated school systems in America, is unique in its extensive reliance on screened admissions practices, including the use of standardized tests, to assign students to sought-after public schools. These screens persist despite their segregative impact in part because they appeal to America’s embrace of the idea of meritocracy. This Article argues that Americans embrace three conceptions of merit which shield these screens from proper scrutiny. The first is individual merit—the idea that students with greater ability or achievement deserve access to better schools. The second is systems merit—the idea that poor student performance on an assessment is a failure of the system that prepared the student for the assessment. The third is group merit—the idea that members of some groups simply possess less ability. Each of these ideas has a pernicious impact on perpetuating racial inequality in public education.