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.

Automatically AP

All Federal Way students in grades 6-12 who meet Washington’s state standards are automatically enrolled in accelerated classes, including demanding Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge classes, reports the Huffington Post.

Some 80 percent of the district’s students pass state exams, which suggests it’s not a high bar. Only 30 percent were signing up for advanced programs, which include pre-AP and pre-IB courses for middle-school students.

Enrollment in advanced courses increased by 70 percent this year.  The most demanding classes no longer are primarily white and Asian-American.

Students can opt out of advanced classes with parental permission.  Michael Scuderi, father of a senior at Thomas Jefferson High, which offers IB, says many students aren’t prepared.

“We’ve heard stories of kids that have dropped out of the program, and they’re crushed,” said Scuderi. “Students weren’t told ahead of time everything they were getting themselves into.”

Of 274 11th graders at Thomas Jefferson High automatically enrolled in IB, 43 have dropped at least one course. However,  94 percent of students in advanced classes are passing with a C or better, the district says. Results from AP, IB and Cambridge exams aren’t known yet.

Best (most AP-centric) high schools

Newsweek’s list of America’s Best High Schools — that is, public schools where the highest percentage of students take college-level courses — is out.

Once again the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas leads the list, which is dominated by magnet schools. (Charter schools make up 15 percent of the list, including #16 ranked Preuss UCSD, which claims all students qualify for a subsidized lunch.) However, super-elite schools are excluded, which seems a bit odd.

Jay Mathews, who created the Challenge Index, argues for the importance of AP testing, even at schools where few AP students pass the exam. (If fewer than 10 percent pass, the school is kicked off the “best” list.)

The average U.S. high schooler does less than an hour of homework a night and spends twice as much time watching television. And it shows in their academic achievements. There has been no significant increase in average reading or math achievement for American 17-year-olds in the last three decades. If AP, IB, and other college-level classes can get more of this age group off the sofa and back to their books, it would be a step forward for the country and a good measure of which schools are really serious about academics.

Here’s the methodology and a photo gallery of the 20 top-ranked schools.