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.

Grades, scores or character?

Less than four percent of students are black or Hispanic at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a public magnet school in Virginia.  Forty-six percent of students are Asian-American. TJ’s admissions committee should consider character as well as brains, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

Last year, the school says, 52 Hispanics and 29 blacks reached the semifinal round of admissions, based on their academic records. But only 13 Hispanics and four blacks were enrolled.

The ability to benefit from the school’s imaginative teaching is not the main criterion for the admission people, I suspect. Like the rest of us, they are impressed by test scores.

Many highly selective high schools are predominantly Asian-American, Mathews writes. Asian immigrant parents push their children to excel academically, especially in science and math. When TJ looks for students with a “passion” for science and math — and high test scores and grades –  it finds many Asian-American students.

The school’s administrators, teachers and counselors have formed a Diversity and Engagement Curriculum Team to recruit more blacks and Hispanics.

“Success in America stems more from character than test-taking ability,” Mathews writes. “We can tell which Jefferson applicants show signs of the determination and grace that produce great lives” by talking to their middle-school teachers.

Many of the most promising ones will be black and Hispanic. Give more of them a chance, and Jefferson will not only be a more interesting school to attend, but more reflective of the values we want all of our kids to have.

Do blacks and Hispanic students have more “character” than Asian-American students? They’ve probably dealt with more adversity. But most of those Asian kids are exceptionally determined people; many have overcome language and cultural challenges. I’d bet their middle-school teachers love them.

Diversity arguments for discriminating on the basis of race and ethnicity are incoherent, argues John Rosenberg on Discriminations. “If Mathews’ suggestions for TJ were adopted perhaps its name should be changed to The Thomas Jefferson High School For Interested, Determined, Graceful Students Of Good Character. The school would probably still be good … but it wouldn’t be TJ.”

College grad rates vary widely

Some colleges graduate most students within six years; some graduate only a few. Students should know their odds, write Frederick Hess, Andrew Kelly an dMark Schneider in Forbes. Their American Enterprise Institute report on graduation rates looked at colleges enrolling first-time, full-time students with similar qualifications.

. . . the “competitive” category . . .  contains institutions that take students with average scores of 500 to 572 on each of the SAT’s three sections (math, critical reading and writing) and GPAs that range from C to B-; they tend to accept 75% to 85% of their applicants. When we ranked the 660 schools in this category by their graduation rate, the average for the bottom 10 places was shockingly low–only 20%. In contrast, the average graduation rate for the top 10 schools in the category was about 75%. The schools ranked near the bottom of the competitive category include Chicago State University in Illinois (16% six-year graduation rate), Coppin State University in Maryland (19%), and Long Island University-Brooklyn Campus in New York (21%).Schools in the top include Merrimack College in Massachusetts (78%), Westminster College in Pennsylvania (76%) and Moravian College in Ohio (75%).

Overall, about half of high school graduates who go to four-year colleges earn a degree in six years.