Open the exam school doors

New York City’s elite exam schools, such as Stuyvesant High and Bronx School of Science, admit very few low-income, black or Hispanic students, writes Michael Holzman, research director for the Schott Foundation for Public Education, on Dropout Nation. Open up the exam schools to disadvantaged students, writes Holzman.

According to a recent series on the local New York City NBC television affiliate, “a dramatic race gap persists at the city’s most elite public high schools, a product of a single standardized entrance exam that privileges students who have been intensively primed and prepped through expensive private tutoring programs.”  The reporters go on to point out that “At Stuyvesant High School, widely viewed as the crown jewels of the top public high schools, just two percent of incoming ninth-graders are black, and 3.5 percent are Hispanic . . . In the general New York City public school population, the two groups comprise a total of 77 percent.”

Many Stuyvesant students — 115 of  843 in a recent year — came from private schools and the suburbs, Holzman writes. Those from public schools tested into Gifted and Talented programs in kindergarten. But children don’t have an equal chance at a gifted education: Some areas of the city test 7 percent of kindergarteners, while others test 70 percent.

New York City should abolish the very high-stakes test used to pick students for its selective high schools, Holzman argues.

. . . the school district should adopt a system used for college admission in various places around the country:  a quota, based on enrollment, from each middle and junior high school.  If a school enrolls, say, one percent of the city’s grade eight students, then one percent of the pool of students admitted to the specialized high schools should come from that school.  Each school should be permitted to set their own criteria for identifying those students, as who knows students better than their teachers?

Instead of paying tutors to help their kids cram for the test, parents might move their children to middle schools where they’d be in the top one percent, he speculates. These parents would pressure schools to improve.

Why not create more exam schools?

“We’ve been neglecting the education of high-ability youngsters,” write Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett, who’ve written a book on exam schools, on Ed Next.

States, districts, and individual schools, pressed by federal policies and metrics, have concentrated attention and resources on low-achieving and other “at-risk” youngsters, while paying scant heed to the fate of smart, eager pupils.

. . .  this negligence (coupled with our wariness of “elitism”) has produced a dearth of places and pursuits for able youngsters, both at the elementary and secondary levels.

. . . When access to rigorous programs is limited, or entry into them is handled simplistically (e.g., a child’s score on a single test), plenty of kids who might benefit don’t get drawn into the pipeline that leads to later success . . .

Educated, motivated parents will get their kids into top public schools or pay for private school, they write. Students whose parents don’t have the savvy to “work the system” lose out.

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  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    Leave Stuyvesant High and Bronx School of Science alone!!

  2. Instead of watering down admissions standards for the exam schools, I would be in favor of NYC creating special “boot camp” middle schools for promising students who come from low-income families where neither parent has a college degree. For fairness’ sake, I would not include race/ethnicity as a criterion for admission, but the groups that are underrepresented in the exam schools would be overrepresented among students eligible for the boot camp middle schools by virtue of being low SES.

    • Obi-Wandreas says:

      I love that idea, and would love to teach in a place like that.

      • I like this idea a lot.

        I also think that a summer ‘prep camp’ for interested middle school students of low SES would be a good idea.

    • For fairness’ sake, I would not include race/ethnicity as a criterion for admission, but the groups that are underrepresented in the exam schools would be overrepresented among students eligible for the boot camp middle schools by virtue of being low SES.

      You said they had to show promise. The most promising low SES students will be white and Asian, not black and Hispanic. The most promising white and Asian low SES students will outperform or at worst tie middle or upper class black and Hispanic students.

      So unless they deliberately use race as a criteria, these prep camps will not deliver.

      And I actually do teach test prep to low income black and Hispanics (mostly Hispanics) and raise their scores from the basement to just above remedial level. Every so often there’s a genuinely bright kid, but in those cases, he or she has been identified as such by the public schools.

      Your notion of a whole slew of bright kids who haven’t been found, lost in the slog of broken schools is a total, delusional fantasy based on a false premise. There are almost no black and Hispanic bright kids left behind.

    • That’s a good idea, but the resumption of ES homogeneous, leveled classes by subject would also be a good way to prepare more kids for more challenging work. Better yet, expand the CK curriculum into more schools – hopefully along with Singapore Math – so more kids get the necessary background knowledge. Right now, schools don’t seem to be doing much to increase academic rigor; quite the contrary. Their concern is disproportionately on those at the bottom, who aren’t able to meet real academic standards, don’t want to put in the effort and/or don’t want to behave. That’s called leaving the able and willing behind, and it’s wrong.

  3. Thomas Jefferson math/science magnet HS in the VA suburbs of DC, altered its admission criteria a few years ago (amid screams of “elitism” and “lack of diversity”) with the result that a third of entering freshmen are unable to handle the usual freshman math course and have to take a remedial one. It’s insanity; no magnet school should admit kids needing remediation for that school’s regular coursework. The admissions process should focus solely on identifying those kids prepared for and committed to doing the work. I’m for more exam schools, not fewer. This country spends far more on “educating” the bottom 20-25% of kids than it does on the top 20-25%.

    • The problem is that because disadvantaged students tend to get stuck in lousy schools K-8, students who do have the potential for success in the exam high schools lack the preparation through no fault of their own. That’s why having “boot camp” middle schools would go a long way towards diversifying the pool of qualified applicants to the exam schools. You can’t just lower admissions standards and throw them into the deep end of the pool- they’ll drown. But having them spend 5th or 6th grade through 8th grade in an intensive program designed to get them caught up to speed and they very well may be able to succeed.

      • I have no problem with MS boot camp programs,as long as it’s accepted that there will likely be significant dropouts, because the program would require very hard work. Also, like applications to the magnets, kids would have to want to attend enough to apply.

  4. I agree, intelligence is fairly evenly spread among different ethnic groups. But, don’t just admit the top students – instead, give them intensive summer school and enrichment opportunities. Contract for outside tutoring; exam prep; and mentoring. Let them EARN the opportunity to attend.

    • I don’t think the data supports your first sentence. There are also cultural differences among populations, regarding the intensity of the focus on academic excellence and the insistence on maximum work effort. That is how most of the large Asian population in my kids’ schools operated.

  5. momof4,

    You’re absolutely correct, but you should have said, this nation spends far more on educating the bottom half of the school population (special education excepted here), than it does the top 5 to 10 percent of students.

    The concept that Jefferson was ‘forced’ to lower its standards to allow students who were by definition ‘not academically eligible’ to attend and then inserting remediation courses which 1/3 of the students have to take (and probably fail) is just pathetic.

    I’m also in agreement, a magnet school should NOT admit students who are not academically qualified, but it can grant waivers to students who are right on the margin of acceptance, with the understanding (to the parents and the student) that he or she will have to work their tail off to remain enrolled at the school.

    More socialism in our schools…just peachy…

    • Not only are we not challenging the top10% and above, in many/most cases we are not challenging the top 25%. They’re being bored in heterogeneous classrooms, as are the average but willing-to-work students. They’re often forced to share those classrooms with very disruptive students (either badly behaved or inappropriately mainstreamed). No one’s academic needs are being met; the struggling kids, the average kids or the very bright kids. It’s all smoke and mirrors, designed to obscure individual and group differences in preparation, ability and motivation, by pretending that there are equal outcomes. BTW, the curriculum choices and instructional methods are likely to be equally weak, flawed, ineffective and/or inefficient – in all kinds of schools. Only those kids with parents who realize the problem and can supplement with tutoring of some kind get the background they need.

  6. I completely agree, but this idea should be scaled across a much wider venue.

    Harvard, John Hopkins Medical, Georgetown Law, etc.., should have to take a % of their student body according to the congressional districts across the country, and the % of population they hold. The people selectedmust be perfectly balanced across racial, ethnic, nation of origin, sexual orientation, family structure, etc…

    Also, the only people allowed to run for president must have a family history that makes them 72% white, 13% black, 5% asian, 1% native american, and 9% other.

  7. I am completely opposed to Holtzman’s recommendations to eliminate the current testing and to require quotas from each MS. That means a two-tier admissions system likely to result in two different academic categories of students – which will reinforce negative stereotypes. Any magnet/exam school should have all admitted kids meet the same standard; anything else is discrimination.

  8. At least we don’t have to worry about the usual suspects showing up to flog public schools that are selective. Magnet schools are parts of school districts so complaints of “cherry-picking” are distinguished by their absence.

    Caroline? Mike? Care to chime in with a convoluted explanation of why selectivity doesn’t merit a passing glance when it occurs under the auspices of a district?

    • It depends on the context.

      If comparing charter to public schools, demographics and self-selection makes a huge difference. Usually the comparison is made to show how charters are better, without accounting for different underlying factors.

      If you aren’t making that comparison, and are just stating “this is a school for strong academic performers”, its entirely different. They are stating that the makeup of the student body is different up front, and not trying to pretend they are on a level field for comparison with “Random public HS #47”.

      • So by your reasoning then if charters actually were selective and explicitly so that’d be alright? All that nonsense about the marvelous “leveling” effect of public education can be tossed out the window as long as the public school’s up front about excluding the hoi-polloi?

        Thanks. Your honesty, even though unintended, is refreshing.

        • Nothing unintended at all. If a school advertises to be geared towards a specific type of student, I have no issues at all. Its when they have focused schools and try to pretend that its the solution for every student and the “fix” for public education where I have issues. What works for specific groups of students does not work for the population as a whole.

          • Ah, so it’s the pretense of egalitarianism that causes you to object.

            If a school’s explicitely selective there’s no problem but since you’ve determined, in the absence of a lick of evidence in support, that charters are selective while trying to maintain the pretense of egalitarianism, that’s objectionable as is the unmade claim, at least by charters, that they’re a solution to the problem of education for the population as a whole.

            Interestingly enough, charters are a solution to the problem of education for the population as a whole since the charters that don’t satisfy the part of the population to which they have access ceases to exist indicating in no uncertain terms that whatever that particular charter was doing, it was wrong. Presumably other charter operators would draw forth the lesson embodied in the failure that charter and avoid its mistakes.

            That would be at contrast with common practice in district schools in which the loss of faith of the parents is met with indifference.

  9. Here is the comment I entered at the original article, which appears to have been deleted:

    If instead, say, 70 percent of ALL students were tested, we could estimate that there would be an additional 10,000 students qualifying for the ruby slippers of the city’s Gifted and Talented programs. These additional students would mostly be Black, Hispanic and living in poverty.

    If you tested 70% of all students, you would find that e.g. the ones which had made it to the third grade without learning to read failed almost without exception. There is no point in testing “students” who do not study and would have failed out of their regular classes… if the schools didn’t exist in a la-la land where nobody actually fails.

    What would be the consequences of this innovation? Some schools which now send many students to the selective high schools would send fewer. Every school which now sends no students to the selective high schools would send some. Every student in New York City would have an equal opportunity to learn in some of the best high schools in the nation.

    Wrong. The thing that makes the school worthwhile is its critical mass of high-achieving students with good faculty. As an immediate consequence of that “innovation”, the student body would lose that critical mass and the value of the school would be destroyed.

    Your “innovation” is disingenuous, as fake as the fake Wizard of Oz. Those schools allow high-caliber students to get an equally high-caliber PUBLIC education in line with their abilities. If you select students by arbitrary criteria or by lottery, the school is destroyed (perhaps physically as well as academically). The beneficiaries are the wealthy, who can afford private schooling for their children and who would no longer have to compete with parents who can’t but whose children can pass the SHSAT (with or without a bit of tutoring).

    If you really cared about poor children of high ability, you’d bring back tracking to the K-12 schools. The average should not have to waste their time listening to lecture and doing material at the ability and pace suitable for the retarded, just as the gifted should not be shackled to the pace of the average. Heterogeneous grouping eliminates the appearance of “racism”, but it hurts everybody. Everybody, that is, who can’t afford anything beyond the public schools.

  10. I agree, intelligence is fairly evenly spread among different ethnic groups.

    No, it’s not. This is factually incorrect and not a matter of opinion.Besides, who are you agreeing with?

  11. Cranberry says:

    I don’t buy the argument that the problem with exam schools is…the exam.

    If you do away with exams for admission, either 1) the academic level at the schools will fall precipitously, or 2) affluent parents will start gaming the “holistic” admissions standards, as they game college admissions. Yes, four-year-olds will suddenly start founding nonprofits.

    This proposal is silly: Each school should be permitted to set their own criteria for identifying those students, as who knows students better than their teachers?

    Teachers are not particularly adept at identifying the very highly gifted. The proposed model would fill the schools with 1) teachers’ pets, 2) teachers’ children, and 3) the children of the politically well connected.

    This statement is disingenuous: The percentage of students in a neighborhood the New York City district thinks it worthwhile to test varies by the income of their parents. As far as I can tell from reading newspapers and the NYC department of education website, every New York City parent can sign up a child for testing. There are many more parents interested in having their kids tested in Manhattan than in the Bronx. That isn’t a decision made by the city–it’s a decision made by the parents.

    This is an argument for interested nonprofits to invest time and money in spreading the word about the tests in underrepresented districts. Perhaps such nonprofits, such as the Schott Foundation for Public Education, could offer programs to acquaint parents with the program, and tutoring for likely children.

    Rather than end the exam schools, perhaps the Schott Foundation and others could agitate for other high schools to be converted to “representative nomination” schools.