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P.S. VIP—What Exam Schools Offer

TWO DECADES AGO, the sociologist James S. Coleman wrote that choice in education should be a two-way street: it would be better for everyone if students could choose their schools and schools could also choose their students. Schools, he wrote, would try hard to keep “the best students.” Parents and students would be able to attend schools “they find attractive and to remain in those schools.” Win-win. Indeed, this is how the system has always worked for private schools, colleges, and universities. But our assumptions tend to shift when it comes to public schools, which are theoretically supposed to take all who show up.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Jessica A. Hockett delve into the word of “exam” high schools—public campuses that require their students to pass certain academic and achievement-related criteria in order to attend. These are the Stuyvesants, the Bronx Sciences, the Boston Latins of the public education arena. The authors wonder whether, in the era of No Child Left Behind, advocates and policymakers are focusing on the worst-off kids at the expense of the exceptional ones. Or, in their words, “have we neglected to raise the ceiling while we’ve struggled to lift the floor?”

Finn, the president of an education policy think tank and a former assistant Secretary of Education, and Hockett, an experienced education consultant, have written an informative and useful book that does not avoid the nuances and messy realities of these schools. Throughout Exam Schools, they build a strong case for the proliferation of selective schools, arguing that America is not doing enough to educate its most talented students, and that schools designed specifically for those students deserve greater investment.

But the authors’ argument suffers from a chicken and egg problem: are these schools so impressive because of their accomplished students, or are the students so accomplished because of their impressive school? Even principals don’t know. One administrator quoted in the book wonders, “Do the kids do well because of us, or in spite of us? We’re not sure.” And without knowing, it is easy to understand why the urgency in American education gravitates toward truly disadvantaged students and failing schools, rather than those who are, by many measures, already excelling.

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This problem is not entirely the authors’ fault. There is a significant dearth of research on these schools, primarily because they serve such a tiny slice of the population. Before Exam Schools, no one had even bothered to make a list of selective and competitive schools. (Media attention far outstrips actual data on these schools.) Out of the 22,568 public high schools in the United States, they came up with only 165 that fit their criteria, serving approximately 135,000 students—less than 1 percent of the public high school population. (By contrast, there are almost 12,000 American private high schools.)

The general lack of focused interest in this corner of the education landscape means that there is hardly any evidence that the students who attend these schools do better than they would have otherwise. Finn and Hockett point to a recent study by economists at Duke and MIT that looked for value-added effects in six prominent exam schools in Boston and New York City, and found only “little evidence of an achievement gain for those admitted to an exam school.”

So the authors’ central claim is not entirely convincing; but Exam Schools picks up steam in the eleven case studies that constitute the bulk of the book, with juicy details ranging from the precious (students at one Texas school bring pillows to their classrooms during mandatory standardized testing, so that they can “nap” after speeding through the tests) to the truly awesome (one student project involved the “creation of a wheelchair for quadriplegics that will be steered via their brainwaves”). And with the exception of an overreliance on the word “youngster”—the most ridiculous of all synonyms for “student”—the rest of the book is engaging and well-written.

Indeed, the book even contains some surprises. Selective schools are rarely the strongholds of privilege, or intellect, that one might expect. Per-pupil spending is lower, on average, than for typical high schools, partially because exam schools do not generally receive as great a share of the federal support that is earmarked for low-income and disabled students. A few of the 165 schools that Finn and Hockett turn up can not even be called high-performing, as their students fare poorly on state academic tests. Certain schools, the authors reveal, feel embattled within their district, neglected with a “smart kids will do fine” attitude or actively targeted for cut-backs and lay-offs.

The demographics of these schools offer some revelations as well. As a sector, exam schools are more diverse than the nation’s public high schools overall, partially because they tend to be concentrated in large urban areas. Black students are overrepresented (30 percent enrollment versus only 17 percent nationally), and so are Asian kids (21 percent versus 5 percent). White kids are actually underrepresented, as are Hispanic students. More girls than boys apply and are accepted to exam schools, while nationally, in all public schools, the gender split is about even. The schools tend to have nearly perfect attendance (when I taught in a D.C. public high school, perfect attendance was like Bali Ha’i—a paradise to be dreamed of, never experienced), and the only real discipline problem is the temptation for students to cheat.

When it comes to the mechanics and statistics of admissions, some schools rival an Ivy League college. At the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA)—a school that Carl Sagan called “a gift from the people of Illinois to the human future” and whose alumni include the founders of Yelp and YouTube—no fewer than 16 people review each application before an admissions decision is made. More than 3,300 eighth-graders applied for only 480 spots in the class of 2015 at the renowned Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia. And Korean-American applicants to Bergen County Academies in New Jersey can spend months in specialized “cram schools” to prepare for the admissions tests—akin to the hagwons of Seoul or Pusan. But while plenty of anxious parents and hyper-achieving kids crowd these pages, the selection systems are designed to mitigate string-pulling. At Thomas Jefferson, for example, admissions are handled by a separate office within the Fairfax County Public Schools, not by the school itself.

Once kids are in, the best of these schools provide an educational experience like no other. The authors describe campuses where students use electron microscopes in nanotechnology labs or are given days off to engage in independent research alongside professionals. Finn and Hockett point to such enriching activities to argue that exam schools encourage middle- and upper-class residents to remain within the public education system. One parent at Jones College Prep, in Chicago, told the authors that their family looked at a private school, but it “just didn’t have a $25,000 advantage over Jones.” Another parent said, “You sometimes forget that [Jones] is a public school.” An alternate rationale is that these campuses provide high-quality, public options for a few talented low-income kids. (Of course, smart but poor kids who are less likely to have attended strong elementary or middle schools are often disadvantaged in admissions.)

Finn and Hockett are not oblivious to the larger issues surrounding such schools: uncomfortable ethical issues around subjective judgments of achievement, racial and equity concerns, and the thousands of kids who are turned away. “Selectivity is [the] rational response to the tough reality that resources are finite, that kids differ in their needs, interests, strengths, and accomplishments, and that no system can realistically offer everything to everybody all the time,” they write. “We fret that selective is somehow incompatible with fair—and we’re mindful of times and places when selectivity has served as a way of keeping some kids (or kinds of kids) outside the sanctum, especially when those who get selected then receive (or are perceived to receive) a better education than those left outside. Private schools can generally get away with that sort of thing. Public schools can’t.”

But—and here is the fundamental problem with their argument—it seems like some of these public exam schools are getting away with that sort of thing. Even though most selective high schools report high rejection rates, and wring their hands over lack of diversity, only a few regularly evaluate their admissions procedures for validity or bias, nor have they developed evaluation metrics for how much their students learn. Instead, they tend to rely on evaluative factors like AP exam scores, rather than value-added gains that demonstrate student growth. This knowledge gap makes it hard to know whether expanding selective schools will improve American education overall, and the current capacity of selective admissions public schools is so slight that even a significant expansion would still leave thousands of other deserving, high-potential kids behind.

Still, American education is increasingly evolving to emphasize choice and differentiation, from charter schools and individualized learning, to voucher programs and inter-district enrollment. Right now, the incredible demand for exam schools far outstrips the available supply—parents and students see value in these schools, even without formal confirmation of their effectiveness. As we strive to offer better educations to all students, Exam Schools takes the important first steps toward illuminating an option that may eventually have resonance for our public school system as a whole.

Rachael Brown works for Bellwether Education, and is a former public high school teacher. Follow: @rachaelbrown