Exam schools pushed on admissions

New York City’s elite high schools admit students who excel on a 2 1/2-hour exam. A majority are Asian-American. Only 12 percent are Hispanic or black. The teachers union and a group of Democratic legislators want to use multiple measures, including grade point averages, attendance and state tests in addition to the current admissions exam.

Advocates of the bill say using one test favors students whose parents can afford tutoring to prepare for the test.

However, at six of the schools, at least 45 percent of the students come from low-income families, according to the city.

Many of the high-scoring Asian-American students come from immigrant families.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Simcha Felder, hopes to add subjective criteria such as essays, community service, interviews and extracurricular activities.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, also backed a holistic review. “If it’s good enough for Harvard and Yale it should be good enough for the students of New York City,” he said.

Political support is weak, reports the New York Times.

Mayor de Blasio, whose son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Tech, said last year that the test should not be the only way to qualify for the elite schools. But he hasn’t come out for the bill yet.

Alumni groups are opposed.

While expressing support for increasing minority enrollment, in ways like providing them with more test preparation, Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, said that the existing system was simple and had “a number of benefits,” including “no favoritism, no bias, whether intentional or subconscious, no politics.”

There may be political support to revive the “Discovery” program, which gave intensive summer help to students who just missed the score cutoff to help them qualify by September. The program lost funding due to budget cuts.

Stop ignoring the smart kids

Americans think high achievers don’t need any help to reach their full potential, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper. He’s the author of Closing America’s High-Achievement Gap, published by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Educated, well-resourced parents can provide special help to their gifted children, writes Smarick. The “talented, low-income child” depends on support at school. And teachers pay much more attention to struggling students than to achievers.

When a high-potential child isn’t challenged, she misses “the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge but also invaluable attributes like grit and perseverance, which will be essential when she faces difficulties in higher education or the workforce.”

. . .  the “excellence gap,” the difference in performance at the “advanced level,” is large and growing. Low-income, minority, and English-language-learning students are terribly under-represented at the highest levels of achievement.

. . . new accountability systems should pay more attention to “advanced” and less to “proficient,” or they should calculate the “value-added” gains of gifted children (as Ohio’s does). We should create more specialty schools for high-potential kids (like those identified in Finn and Hockett’s superb Exam Schools).

. . . We need to do a much better job of identifying gifted kids and developing policies requiring that they receive attention. We need more out-of-school supplements, such as distance-learning opportunities and university-based programs. And we need to seriously reconsider how we recruit, train, certify, and compensate those who teach gifted kids. These boys and girls desperately need very, very smart educators.

“We should care about all boys and girls,” Smarick concludes.

Busy with the move to Common Core standards, teachers have even less time for gifted students, reports Education Week. “In order to differentiate, you have to understand the standards and know what they entail. That’s ground zero,” said Jared B. Dupree, a Los Angeles Unified administrator. “Quality differentiation” for gifted students may be  “three or four years down the road.”

Elite students excuse cheating

Cheating is easy to rationalize, say students at New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High School in the New York Times.

The night before one of the “5 to 10” times he has cheated on a test, a senior at Stuyvesant High School said, he copied a table of chemical reactions onto a scrap of paper he would peek at in his chemistry exam. He had decided that memorizing the table was a waste of time — time he could spend completing other assignments or catching up on sleep.

“It’s like, ‘I’ll keep my integrity and fail this test’ — no. No one wants to fail a test,” he said, explaining how he and others persuaded themselves to cheat. “You could study for two hours and get an 80, or you could take a risk and get a 90.”

A recent alumnus said that by the time he took his French final exam one year, he, along with his classmates, had lost all respect for the teacher. He framed the decision to cheat as a choice between pursuing the computer science and politics projects he loved or studying for a class he believed was a joke.

“When it came to French class, where the teacher had literally taught me nothing all year, and during the final the students around me were openly discussing the answers, should I not listen?” he said.

Stuyvesant students are competing for highly selective colleges. They work very hard in the classes they care about, but try to limit their workload in other classes. Copying homework is considered OK, students told the Times. Cheating on tests requires some extra excuse-making.

In June, 71 juniors were caught texting his each other answers to state Regents exams.

Education and civil rights group charge the elite high schools’ admissions test screens out black and Hispanic students, reports the Times. The Specialized High School Admissions Test is the sole criterion for admission to eight specialized schools.

According to the complaint, 733 of the 12,525 black and Hispanic students who took the exam were offered seats this year. For whites, 1,253 of the 4,101 test takers were offered seats. Of 7,119 Asian students who took the test, 2,490 were offered seats. At Stuyvesant High School, the most sought-after school, 19 blacks were offered seats in a freshman class of 967.

“Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a news conference. “You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is.”

Young, gifted and neglected

Very smart kids don’t have enough opportunities to soar, argues Checker Finn in a New York Times op-ed. Low achievers are the priority.

First, we’re weak at identifying “gifted and talented” children early, particularly if they’re poor or members of minority groups or don’t have savvy, pushy parents.

Second, at the primary and middle-school levels, we don’t have enough gifted-education classrooms (with suitable teachers and curriculums) to serve even the existing demand.

. .  .Third, many high schools have just a smattering of honors or Advanced Placement classes, sometimes populated by kids who are bright but not truly prepared to succeed in them.

With Jessica A. Hockett, Finn wrote Exam Schools, a look at public high schools for very bright, very motivated students. Only 1 percent of students attends an exam school, they found. Almost all turn away many qualified applicants.

Why do we provide high-quality learning opportunities only to high-IQ students, asks Sara Mead. She agrees with Finn that our schools don’t maximize the potential of talented low-income and minority students. She believes in “differentiating in schooling to meet the needs of students with differing aptitudes and interests. ”

But the grim reality is that in practice the gifted and talented label–and special programs for youngsters who wear it–often has less to do with meeting specific and unique needs of especially bright youngsters than with rationing access to a limited supply of quality educational options. That’s why parents in places like New York City (where “gifted” children may gain access to specialized placements as early as in kindergarten) are spending exorbitant effort and money to get their kids identified as gifted.

Implicit in many of Finn’s arguments seems to be the assumption that we can’t possibly provide academically demanding, safe, high-quality schools staffed by excellent teachers for all of our kids, so we’d best focus on those who are likely to amount to something some day.

It’s excellent students — not excellent teachers — that make exam schools so good. It should be possible to create good schools for motivated, not-gifted students.  But can it be done for everyone?

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.

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.