TDSB seeks end to auditions, entrance exams for specialty high school programs
Proposed overhaul of admission requirements for popular programs to go before trustees later this month.
May 3, 2022
The Toronto District School Board is seeking to do away with all admission fees, entrance exams, auditions and middle school report card evaluations required to get into some of the city’s most sought-after high school programs.
The TDSB said a decade of data has “consistently” shown these specialty schools and programs disproportionally serve students from parents with middle to higher incomes. Not every student who could benefit from Toronto’s more than 40 arts, athletics, math and science-focused specialty programs or schools has been able to attend, the board said.
The proposed changes, which go before the board of trustees for final review May 25, were developed from consultation with and surveys taken by parents, students, staff and trustees.
Instead of demonstrating strength or ability in certain fields in order to be selected for a specialized school, prospective students will instead need only state their interest. What a statement of interest looks like will vary by school, a spokesperson for the TDSB said, but it could range from written letters to dance performances.
This differs from an audition in that applicants will not be evaluated on their technical skill, but instead on their passion for the subject.
From there, a random draw of interested students would determine placement.
The proposed changes have angered some parents and students in specialized schools. Some told the Star they feel they would water down the prestige of their programs, invalidate the work they put in to earn a spot at their school of choice or hamper the development of future generations of gifted Toronto children.
Others see it as an overdue fix to a system that overwhelmingly prioritized privileged applicants.
“What research from the Toronto board shows is that it’s inevitable, when you have a system of specialty schools, that kids get divided along socioeconomic or even racial lines,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, a Canadian charity that researches public education.
“Taking away the many barriers that exist for kids to access these kinds of schools is an important step in the overall goal of providing good, strong, broadly based education equitably.”
Some specialty schools have already independently dropped more traditional admissions requirements.
Ursula Franklin Academy, a specialized school that offers liberal arts and science programs, used to evaluate applicant report cards and entrance essays. This past fall, the school switched to a randomized selection process.
And unlike other Toronto art schools, Rosedale Heights School of the Arts does not hold auditions for entry, as it believes “in equity for all students, regardless of background and access to arts education,” according to a pamphlet for the school.
“There are advantages that some kids have that others don’t, and they have them from early on,” said Kidder. “More access to sports, art activities, summer camp. They come from privilege that provides them with enrichment or support that other kids don’t have.”
Kidder said specialized high schools, in their current form, serve to exacerbate those advantages.
Kunal Joshi, a parent of a child enrolled in a specialized program, told the Star he is outraged with the proposed policy revisions. He said they are tantamount to “discrimination” against students who put in the necessary effort to earn placement.
“It’s alarming, mind-boggling,” he said. “If I had an interest in being a fighter pilot, I’d have to show I’ve made some preparations for it, that I have some basic qualifications. There has to be a quantifiable way to assess all the children. A statement of interest is qualitative, there’s no proper yardstick for that.”
Joshi is not alone in not supporting the proposed changes. An online petition to “fight for specialized programs in the TDSB” had over 2,500 signatories as of Monday evening.
The petition states that while the proposed policy changes would “surely help” marginalized communities, they would also negatively influence the “unique identity” of specialized programs. “If we allow this proposal to become policy, we will not recover,” it says.
In response to these criticisms, Kidder said the net good of the proposed policy should outweigh individual discomfort with it.“There’s always a balancing act in public education,” she said. “It’s a wrestle between the private good we want as individuals and the public good. We have to think about the kinds of skills, competencies and experiences all kids should have, and how we can make sure that’s accessible to them. That’s the most important thing.”