Top HISD Magnets More Selective Than Ivy League Schools

For high school seniors and magnet school applicants, acceptance season is here. Universities have issued their  initial round of acceptance offers; students with offers from multiple schools have until May 1 to decide where they will attend. Meanwhile, in HISD, students were notified of their magnet admission status in mid-March; the deadline for admitted students to register at magnet schools was last week.

As college acceptance letters trickle in, many students will be disappointed to find themselves waitlisted or outright rejected by their top choices of schools – especially if their hearts are set on Ivy League schools and other elite institutions. America’s most selective university, Stanford, admitted only 5.05% of applicants this year.

But of course, to HISD parents, those odds might not seem so bad – Twain Elementary, Houston’s most selective magnet school, has an acceptance rate of just 1.74%. In fact, four of the ten most selective HISD magnet schools have lower acceptance rates than any university.

Table 1: Top Ten Selective Universities, 2015*


Rank School Name # of Seats # of Applications Acceptance Rate
1 Stanford 2,144 42,487 5.05%
2 Harvard 1,990 37,305 5.33%
3 Columbia 2,228 36,250 6.15%
4 Yale 1,962 30,237 6.49%
5 Princeton 1,908 27,290 6.99%
6 University of Chicago 2,365 30,192 7.83%
7 MIT 1,467 18,306 8.01%
8 Brown 2,580 30,397 8.49%
9 Claremont McKenna 698 7,152 9.76%
10 University of Pennsylvania 3,697 37,276 9.92%


Table 2: Top Ten Selective HISD Magnets, 2014**


Rank School Name # of Seats # of Applications Acceptance Rate
1 Twain Elementary 13 748 1.74%
2 Roberts Elementary 22 893 2.46%
3 Poe Elementary 15 526 2.85%
4 Horn Elementary 35 858 4.08%
5 River Oaks Elementary 54 1,443 6.09%
6 Lovett Elementary 48 776 6.19%
7 Pin Oak Middle School 160 2,333 6.86%
8 Travis Elementary  20 510 6.97%
9 Pershing Middle School 104 1,287 8.08%
10 T.H. Rogers K-8 157 2,659 9.06%


Now of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s “easier” to get in to Harvard than it is to get in to, say, Roberts Elementary or Poe Elementary. University admissions are almost entirely merit-based, whereas HISD magnet admissions are almost entirely luck-based – magnet students are accepted on the basis of a lottery which randomly assigns a number to each qualified applicant. For all that it doesn’t reflect the relative ease of admittance at magnets schools as compared to universities, though, the comparison does raise some important points.

Looking at these statistics side by side underscores just how selective HISD magnets really are. At many of the best HISD magnet schools, a given applicant has less than a one in ten chance of being offered a seat. This is an important consideration for HISD policymakers and parents.

For parents, magnet schools’ selectivity can be seen as both a good and bad thing. A given school’s selectivity is a reflection of how many more applicants than seats there are, which indicates that the school’s program is widely perceived as excellent. So if a magnet school is highly selective, odds are good that it’s a school you’d want your children going to. On the other hand, of course, the odds of your child being admitted are correspondingly lower. So it’s important to be realistic and include a few less-selective safety schools in your portfolio of magnet applications.

For HISD administrators, magnet schools’ extreme selectivity carries a different meaning. It is symptomatic of a broader problem with HISD’s magnet programs – namely, the failure of some of them to act as “magnets” which can draw students from all over the district. According to HISD policy, at least 20% of a magnet school’s student body should be drawn from outside its neighborhood zone. But as some neighborhood programs grow in prestige and popularity, more zoned families are electing to send their children there, leaving fewer spaces for magnet transfers. This hinders the affected schools from fulfilling one important purpose of magnet programs – to make quality education available to any student in the district – and calls into question whether those schools’ magnet funds are a worthwhile expenditure for the district.

Superintendent Terry Grier and the HISD Board of Education have addressed these issues in the past two years by enforcing the 20% rule and putting schools on probation if they fail to meet that standard. Schools which do not meet the 20% standard (and other magnet qualifying standards) after a year of probation will have their magnet programs, and their magnet budgets, phased out. West University Elementary has already lost its magnet program this way, and last year’s two most selective schools, Twain and Roberts, are both on probation.

The phenomenon of magnet schools becoming too selective is a difficult one to handle from an administrative standpoint, because it often results from the excellence of the programs in question – by any metric, Twain and Roberts are great schools. Cutting the magnet programs and the associated funding would very likely lead to a drop in the quality of education there. But on the other hand, the fundamental purpose of magnet schools is to make quality education available to all students, and not just the residents of certain neighborhoods. Schools which become highly selective due to a scarcity of available seats do not effectively serve that purpose. It is difficult to say whether the current probation policy is the best way to ensure that magnet programs function as they should, but it is clear that some form of intervention is needed. After all, it’s a little ridiculous for an elementary school to be more selective than the entire Ivy League.


*Data courtesy of The Washington Post.

**Data courtesy of Houston Independent School District. Original analysis by The Houston School Survey. The Houston School Survey also ranks HISD magnets by number of applications and by the percentage of offers which are accepted. Data and analysis for the 2015 application cycle will be made available on the Houston School Survey this summer.

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