Exam schools from the inside

Exam schools — public schools for high achievers — attract far more applicants than they can take, write Fordham’s Checker Finn and consultant Jessica Hockett in Education Next.

Some school officials are uneasy about the practice of selectivity, given possible allegations of “elitism” and anxiety over pupil diversity. Still, most rely primarily on applicants’ prior school performance and scores on various tests.

. . . Their overall student body is only slightly less poor than the universe of U.S. public school students. Some schools, we expected, would enroll many Asian American youngsters, but we were struck when they turned out to comprise 21 percent of the schools’ total enrollment, though they make up only 5 percent of students in all public high schools. More striking still: African Americans are also “overrepresented” in these schools, comprising 30 percent of enrollments versus 17 percent in the larger high-school population. Hispanic students are correspondingly underrepresented, but so are white youngsters.

Exam schools are “serious, purposeful places” with motivated, well-behaved students. Teachers have high expectations for students. Most schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, their own  advanced courses and/or actual college classes. In addition, there are literary magazines, robotics competitions, sophisticated music and theater offerings, most of the usual clubs and organizations, plenty of field trips, and no dearth of sports—though champion football and basketball teams were rare!

But exam schools are under heavy pressure to get graduates into top-tier colleges. The “AP tiger” frustrates teachers, exhausts students and discourages  “experimentation, risk-taking, unconventional thinking, unique courses, and individualized research, as well as pedagogical creativity and curricular innovation,” write Finn and Hockett.

While exam school students excel, it’s not clear the school added value to students who already were high performing, they write.

Should the U.S. have more exam schools for high achievers? Here’s the poll.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Generally not a fan of these places.

    It’s good to meet a mix of peers, even if you don’t necessarily take classes with them. It’s one thing to be a little elitist about your classes, but still share school spirit with everyone else.

    It’s an entirely different thing to look down on other schools wholesale.

    It’s a good experience to join the wrestling team and get your face melted by some dip$#!+ who is taking remedial pre-general basic math, to realize that the stuttering fool of a blonde from third period government really has a lovely singing voice, and that you *can* be kicked out of Honors English, because there is someplace for you to go.

    • I have to agree.

      My freshman year in HS was spent at an all-boys catholic school. Nearly the whole class was filled with kids who were going to be President (I’m still waiting to see a familiar face in the race for the WH)

      Then my family moved and I spent the next three years at an average public school. I was in the Regents track and college bound but in homeroom I got to meet students who planned on washing dishes as a career. Having them in the school didn’t affect me since they weren’t in my classes but having them in the school and rubbing elbows with them from time to time was educational in itself.

      There is no need to necessarily segregate by school. Unfortunately, the unit of educational debate always seems to be the school. In the public debate schools are either all good or all bad and need to be closed in their entirety. It’s not surprising then that they only way some people can contemplate rigorous classes is in a specialized rigorous school.

      Look at Jay Mathews. That guy seems completely unable to grasp anything finer-grained than an entire school.

    • Cranberry says:

      Michael E. Lopez, I think you have a severe case of nostalgia. The anti-tracking mania is no longer confined to elementary and middle school.

  2. I think that the top end of the academic spectrum deserves to have their educational needs met and the exam schools offer excellent opportunities for those prepared and motivated to function at that level.

    As for your argument about school spirit and sharing activities, that may not happen even in a school where the magnet program shares a roof and non-academic classes with the rest of the school. I remember one boy who attended such a school, and he said that even the extracurricular choices were different between the two groups. He was the only magnet student on the soccer team; most that did sports did cross-country, tennis, swimming etc. That was true, to a significant degree, at the comprehensive high schools (4 in all) my kids attended.
    Magnet schools are not for everyone, but it’s a valuable option – particularly for those who would otherwise attend a school unlikely to offer challenging coursework. Those not wanting to attend need not apply.

  3. Ah, the *real* selective public schools. I assume Caroline and Mike won’t chime in with tortured explanations of the differences between district schools that are explicitly and unapologetically selective and charters but a guy can hope. A good contortionist is a somewhat creepy wonder to behold.

  4. There was a letter sent to the WaPo this spring, from a Georgetown University freshman who had graduated from one of DC’s better charter schools. He obviously worked hard in school and he realized that he had had a much better education than he would have received in the HS for which he was zoned. However, he realized that he was significantly less-prepared than his G’town classmates from good suburban schools and private schools, and he had to drop a class in order to stay academically afloat. Like other bright, motivated kids in DC, he could have benefited from a more rigorous k-12 experience. Why not offer the(motivated) kids at the top end of each school the opportunity to move to a magnet (exam) school at about grade 2 level, so they can be challenged and be ready for very rigorous HS coursework and success in competitive colleges. The same goes for other numerically large districts; offer kids who won’t be challenged at their home schools, because there aren’t enough kids at their level, a chance to be with a critical mass of those kids.

    As was previously mentioned, some of these kids will be targets of teasing, shunning and worse in their current school(s), so the social climate is also problematic.