Norm Fruchter
The NYC Department of Education should stop assigning disproportionate numbers of high-needs, late-enrolling students known as “over the counter” students to struggling schools.


From 2008 to 2011, the New York City school system annually assigned some 36,000 late-enrolling students to the city’s high schools. Most of those students were disproportionally placed in struggling schools, essentially setting up the students and schools for failure, according to a new AISR study, Over the Counter, Under the Radar.

These late-enrolling students, who had missed participating in the school system’s almost universal high school choice process the previous year, are traditionally labeled as “over the counter” (OTC) students. OTC students include many of the system’s highest-needs populations: new immigrants; special-needs students; previously incarcerated teens; poor, transient, or homeless youth; and over-age students. Though these students constitute more than 16 percent of the city’s high school population, AISR’s study was the first to focus on the experience (in this case the initial placement) of OTC students in the high school system.

The city’s high school choice process involves both choice and selection – students choose schools, then schools choose students, and finally an algorithmic process akin to how medical students are matched with residencies assigns students to schools. As the number of high schools in the city has increased enormously since the 1980s, from fewer than 150 to more than 400, the choice process has become a highly pressured and precarious ritual that shapes the futures of the city’s adolescents. 

The high school choice process has been modified several times across the past four decades and currently privileges students’ academic achievement in junior high school, their families’ socio-economic status, and their capacity to successfully negotiate the complexities of the choice process. The increasing demand for seats in effective high schools, combined with the limited supply of such seats, has resulted in fewer placements available for students with disabilities, English language learners (ELLs), and OTC students. This scarcity of seats in effective schools for OTC students underlies the following findings of AISR’s study.

OTC students are disproportionately assigned to large high schools serving a high percentage of low-scoring, high-needs students: those with low eighth-grade ELA/math proficiency scores, ELLs, and dropouts.

This trend is less pronounced, though still significant, for small and medium-sized high schools serving high-needs students.

Significantly higher percentages of OTC students are assigned to struggling high schools.

The study defined struggling high schools as those cited by the New York State Education Department as persistently low-achieving schools. Large struggling high schools had an average OTC assignment rate of 18 percent, compared with a 12 percent average for non-struggling schools. Medium and small-size struggling high schools had equivalent OTC assignment disadvantages. These disproportionate numbers of OTC student assignments are sometimes strikingly large. The Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology, a small Bronx high school, was assigned 110 OTC students in 2011 out of a total population of 424 students.  John Adams, a large Bronx high school, was assigned 961 OTC students out of a total population of 3,301 students. Assignments of such massive numbers of OTC students can quickly destabilize schools’ instructional efforts and dismantle long-established, supportive academic cultures.

Significantly higher percentages of OTC students are assigned to high schools targeted for closure in the years before their closures are announced, and higher percentages of OTC students were assigned to schools undergoing the phase-out process.

Sheepshead Bay High School was targeted for closure in 2013. In 2011, two years before its closure was announced, Sheepshead Bay had an OTC assignment rate of 25 percent, while the city’s average for other large high schools was 15 percent. Jonathan Levin, a small Bronx high school also targeted for closure in 2013, had a 2011 OTC assignment rate of 32 percent, compared to a 19 percent assignment rate for other small high schools.  Most of the high schools whose closures were announced in 2013 saw their OTC assignment rates increase between 2008 and 2011, the years before their closure was determined. Whatever the validity of the measures used to decide which schools to close, increasing the percentage of OTC students assigned to those schools before the decision to close them exacerbates their challenges and lowers the performance indicators on which they are judged – and found wanting.

OTC students were also assigned at high rates to high schools undergoing the closure process. Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx had an OTC assignment rate of 37 percent in 2011, the first year of its closure, compared to a citywide rate of 14 percent for schools of similar size. Jamaica High School in Queens, another school in its first year of closure in 2011, had a 31 percent OTC assignment rate.

A substantial group of high-performing high schools are assigned very low percentages of OTC students, and a similar-sized group of struggling high schools are assigned very high percentages of OTC students.

AISR’s study identified the twenty-five schools in the bottom 20th percentile of the citywide OTC distribution. These schools all had OTC assignment rates of less than 10 percent in 2011, compared to a citywide average of 16 percent. Seven high schools had average rates below 5 percent. These schools were the system’s high performers; they significantly exceeded the rest of the system on indicators of college readiness scores, graduation rates, and dropout rates, and their students’ eighth-grade proficiency scores were all significantly higher.

At the high end of the OTC distribution, twenty-eight high schools fell within the top 20th percentile of OTC rates each year from 2008 through 2011. These schools’ average OTC rate was 29 percent, significantly higher than the city average of 16 percent. These schools had significantly lower average eighth-grade proficiency scores, low college readiness indicators and graduation rates, and significantly higher dropout rates.

Based on these findings, the study made several recommendations:

  • The school system should identify high schools in which OTC students achieve significantly higher academic performance than systemwide averages and identify the exemplary practices of these “beat-the-odds” schools.

  • Schools targeted for closure or already undergoing the closure process, as well as persistently low-achieving high schools, should not be assigned any OTC students.

  • The school system should assign OTC students to all other high schools at an annual rate of between 12 and 20 percent of their respective student populations.

Implementing these recommendations would transform the current pure choice, merit-based high school selection process into a controlled choice process that reserves an annual percentage of seats for OTC students. Extending this controlled choice model to students with disabilities and ELLs would involve reserving approximately 30 percent of the seats in all city high schools for these students, who would be assigned outside the high school choice process. Aside from achieving a dramatic gain in equitable treatment for almost a third of the system’s high school students, such a controlled choice model would allow each high school to reconfigure its curriculum, programming, and instruction to more effectively meet the needs of a predictable annual percentage of struggling students.

Prepared by:

578 Norm Fruchter
Senior Consultant
Annenberg Institute for School Reform