Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Expand admissions criteria for Tucson's University High School

2013-09-15T00:15:00Z 2013-09-15T20:31:48Z Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Expand admissions criteria for Tucson's University High SchoolArizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board is considering changes to how students are accepted for admission to the district’s flagship school, University High. Suggestions to take a fuller measure of a student and broaden the criteria are smart and more equitable to students, and should be adopted.

University High School, which shares a campus at Swan Road and Fifth Street with Rincon High School, is the only TUSD school with entrance requirements. Students must have a 3.0 GPA in four core classes (English, social studies, mathematics and science) and score well on a standardized entrance exam.

The admissions process should be expanded beyond GPA and a test score, as these two methods don’t tell the whole story of a student’s performance or potential.

At its Tuesday meeting the board discussed changes that would help meet a requirement from its federal court-approved plan that, if carried out, will eventually release TUSD from a decades-long desegregation court order.

The plan requires the district ensure that “all students have an equitable opportunity to enroll at University High School.”

The school’s demographics don’t reflect the TUSD district at large. In fact, the racial and ethnic disparities are striking.

As of Sept. 9 the district’s total high school enrollment was 27.8 percent white, 6.2 percent African American and 57.4 percent Hispanic.

Compare that to the student body at University High as of the same day: 50.5 percent white, 1.6 percent African American and 31.8 percent Hispanic.

The Governing Board discussed one option, adding a “motivation test” that, depending on a student’s score, would add bonus points that could make up for a deficit in the GPA or entrance test.

Experts in what are known in education circles as “Exam Schools” — schools with admission requirements — recommend that districts use criteria that goes beyond grades and test scores. Some schools have applicants write personal statements or an essay, and others rely more on recommendations from teachers or interviews.

Students are more than a test score or a grade, and the existing University High process doesn’t give enough opportunity to students who have extenuating circumstances or legitimate explanations for a lower grade or test score.

University High is what it says in its name — a college preparatory school. Many exam schools evaluate students in the same way colleges do, by looking beyond numbers.

“It’s an opportunity for students to address some issues that may have arisen, whether it’s in the entrance test or in the GPA,” said University High Principal Dean Packard in a report from the meeting by the Star’s Alexis Huicochea.

“There are always challenges that people face in life that cause external stress,” he said. “But by having that motivation test, it mitigates a semester of challenge or a small specific problem you may have, and allows you to still experience something that you’re most likely extremely qualified for.”

Part of the educational process is figuring out who you are as a student, and that doesn’t happen in a lockstep way or on the same timeline.

Offering flexibility in the applications process takes that reality into account. Diversity is more than numbers, it involves life experiences and educational institutions do their best for everyone when they bring together qualified students who have different backgrounds. Give students the chance to succeed.

Including a way for students to demonstrate their commitment and motivation, whether through a motivation test or perhaps an essay, doesn’t lower the bar, it widens the door for more students to meet rigorous academic challenges at University High School.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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