Exam Schools: Choice, Quality, and the Right Fit

Peter Cohee

Take one familiar fact: everybody keeps calling for Excellence – excellence not just in schooling, throughout society. But as soon as somebody or something stands out as Excellent, the other shout goes up: “Elitism!” And whatever produced that thing, whoever praises that result, is promptly put down. “Standing out” is undemocratic. … [O]ur real attitude toward “excellence” – we won’t have it.

   J. Barzun, Begin Here. The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (3)

A few years ago Charles Murray drew attention to the neglect in American education reform policy of the needs of our ablest school students while we struggle to raise the academic achievements of our low-performing students. Chester E. Finn, Jr. (Board Advisor for NAS) and Jessica A. Hockett have just now put out Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools. While there is no connection between Murray’s Real Education and Exam Schools, both works concern this same problem. Finn and Hockett have approached it by a hitherto-unused avenue: selective (“exam”) public high schools. The subject is one of serious interest to colleges and universities because many of their best-prepared and motivated applicants come from these schools. These are schools and students college admissions officers and professors will want to know about.

Finn and Hockett divide their book into three parts. The first part informs readers what exactly an exam school is and how it differs from an open-admission high school. They pose their guiding questions: What and where are exam schools? How – and how fairly – do they admit their students? How, if at all, are they different from non-selective schools? Are their graduates really better prepared for college work, and how do we know? Are these schools really worth it? Two vexing matters recur throughout: Advanced Placement and “diversity” (the scare quotes indicate the current socio-political concept as analyzed by Peter Wood). The second part of the book is made up of reports on selective high schools personally visited by the authors, followed by their reflection on trends, patterns, and differences observed. Part III summarizes the challenges and successes of exam schools and considers the problems and possibilities in trying to increase their number in American school systems.

The authors established six criteria by which they defined selective high schools (page 22-23) and distinguished them from, for example, charter and magnet schools as well as from enrichment programs within a comprehensive high school open to all. Using these criteria they identified 165 public exam high schools in the United States – not many, when you consider the number of high schools and high school kids in this country. They then sent to principals of those schools a preliminary survey (Appendix II, page 216-228). They made contact with eighteen, eleven of which they personally visited (Finn six, Hockett five).

Now a disclaimer of sorts: after teaching Classics for some time at the tertiary level, I was a department head and teacher for twelve years at Boston Latin School. The Boston Latin School does not appear in this book, because school officers did not reply to the authors’ attempts to contact them. Too bad, for a report on this, the nation’s oldest public high school and an exam school for much longer than the others in this study, would have provided very useful comparisons. And it is especially regrettable because newly-founded Brooklyn Latin School is deliberately modeled on Boston’s example, and thereby directly answers one of Finn and Hockett’s most important questions: can selective exam schools be successfully replicated?

The schools visited, however, are a good sample: some urban, some suburban; some with a science and technology focus, others of a classical humanistic quality; some that evolved into selective schools from in-school programs, and others that began as exam schools. Although most such academies, like the Boston Latin School, are found in the northeast, Finn and Hockett explored schools all across the country. Each chapter gives a brief overview and history of the school, details its admission processes, and analyzes student demographics, and other matters such as teacher union membership, leadership, and relationships with other high schools in their districts. Some of the schools are aggressively competitive, with stratospheric academic results; others do only somewhat better than their open-enrollment public counterparts.

Admissions standards range from relatively simple (prior grades and entrance exam scores) to extraordinarily complex (grades, exams, essays, recommendations, interviews, selection by neighborhood of feeder schools, IQ scores in a few cases). There are two concerns here: making sure that students will be prepared and well-placed to succeed; and trying to achieve student ethnic demographics roughly similar to the feeder areas. One of Finn and Hockett’s interesting findings is that, overall, students of African origin tend to be overrepresented, some schools being almost entirely black. However, in quite a few examples black and Hispanic kids are fewer in the ratio, mirroring somewhat the phenomenon known as the “achievement gap.” It will surprise no one that students of Asian background are overrepresented in these schools, especially where there is a STEM focus, such as at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Academically selective admission, which first distinguishes all these schools, is the touchiest subject in the exam school discussion, precisely because of “diversity.” Where the admitted student body does not correspond to area ethnic and cultural populations, doubts and unpleasant questions arise. Most of the schools examined try very hard to attain some ethnic and cultural balances, but this is often difficult (page 163-164). I’m not convinced, as the authors seem to be, that a more “diverse” student body makes for any better education. But there is plenty of room for reasoned disagreement on that point.

What is far more important, in my experience, is that the various processes admits individuals who are ready and eager for the additional work and challenges, who will benefit by association with other well-prepared and hard-working classmates, who will discipline themselves and rise to the expectations of demanding teachers, and who will graduate on time with little extra support, truly ready for serious college learning. Removal for academic cause is a parallel consideration. Some of these institutions require a 2.0 average, some 2.5, 2.7, or even 3.0 to remain enrolled in the exam school. Several students to take two or more AP classes before graduation. Almost all eleven schools boast high completion rates, though in a few cases the attrition might actually be as high as twenty-five percent.

If the admissions apparatus isn’t selective enough, the result will be larger numbers of kids who struggle (even with lots of help), who won’t work or behave, who will disrupt classes and distract teachers and classmates, and who won’t graduate with their friends (or graduate, period), even after an extra year or two. If such students increase in number at any selective school, they will make it similar to a non-selective one. Successful selective schools with thorough admissions criteria thus provide a valuable object lesson. If exam schools are to continue to provide special opportunities to gifted, talented, and motivated youngsters, they will have to keep evaluating their own admissions policies, not yield to demands for admission on any other bases, and maintain fair and consistent elimination procedures. If they fail to do so, they lose the brand cachet.

Advanced Placement offerings and results make up a big part of the exam school formula. Some resist this idea on the grounds that AP courses tend to depress real creativity and create a high-pressure test-prep environment in which there is little time or energy for creative teaching and genuine learning. That’s always possible, but it isn’t necessarily so. If the test is a really good one, and AP tests generally are, then teaching to the test is not a bad idea. Problems occur when teachers cannot cover the curriculum efficiently and leave no time for the deeper engagement we expect of a college-equivalent course.

Competitive high schools stake a lot on Honors and AP courses. Except in those cases where all non-AP courses are automatically called “Honors,” a secondary admissions issue arises. Who gets in? What are the criteria? Are standards fair and do they work? Two things make this problematic. The first occurs where a school has a “bump” policy whereby students who enroll in an Honors or AP course get an uptick in their GPA. Even if they get a minimum-score D, they’re still better off, GPA-wise. If enrollment is limited, this naturally intensifies the competition to get in. And that might be the case, depending on the supply of qualified teachers. The other problem is that, like school admission, Honors and AP acceptance becomes the focus of “diversity” attention. For some time now there have been increased demands for “expanded access” to higher quality courses. The metaphor is telling: Honors and AP classes are a kind of gated community from which some are excluded. Finn and Hockett are careful to point out that, just as with admission to a school, acceptance to high level courses within the school must depend on prior preparation and demonstrated ability. A school’s record of AP test scores is a big part of its reputation.

While this is a study of a narrow sector of American public high schools, it nevertheless furnishes material for broader consideration.

First, Finn and Hockett’s study helps answer the question, “What is a “good” school? Exam schools demonstrate very effectively that a good school is one that fits the young person’s abilities, preparation, motivation, home life, and needs. A good school, in simple terms, is a good fit. Several times in the schools’ reports someone says (and one hears it often at Boston Latin as well), “This school isn’t for everybody.” The school and the kid need to be right for each other. 

This introduces the second, even more important point: school choice. School choice is expanding through vouchers, charters, and other means. But for school choice to work, there have to be meaningful differences, real options. Single-sex schools, schools designed to help the less well-prepared or less academically inclined, schools with a practical or vocational or pre-military program, schools with a thorough SPED (special education) commitment (assuming some relaxation of “least restrictive environment” rules)—all could best meet the needs of their particular clientele. Finn and Hockett demonstrate through exam schools that a “whole school” approach is the best one, rather than the usual model:, a little of this and a little of that, none of it done very well. One must not be naïve. This will be politically difficult if the student body of such schools tends to be by far of African or Hispanic descent. It will look like segregation by other means. But a community will have to consider the conditions and needs of the individuals, not something more superficial.

The authors do not discuss higher education bubble, but it looms over exam schools. Murray, Richard Vedder and many others have warned that too many young people are going to college who are unprepared, unmotivated, and needing remedial work, and who do not graduate in four, five, or even six years – a national Animal House. What does that mean, then, for graduates of exam schools, which were originally established especially for college preparation at a time when most high school students did not go on to college? Time and experience will tell. At present, there are clearly some very different ideas of what a college education should be.

Finally, Exam Schools opens discussion on the perennial problem as posed by John W. Gardner: “Can we be equal and excellent too?” The American nervousness about – and envy of – exceptional people plays out in education as almost nowhere else. But this is nothing new and will be resolved at no time soon:

Elite means elect, a Puritan idea: few are chosen. It is also a democratic idea. … So it turns out that the country is a mass of elites; hardly anybody is left out; privilege is the rule. Why then this outcry against elitism? What is there to be afraid of? One thing only – that an elite member will make us feel inferior with respect to a talent we think we have. … The entire education system suffers from this ingrained attitude, which is not new. .. Now it is the schooled and the half-schooled who raise the cry of Elitism against the academically gifted. … The use of elite in a pejorative sense also shows the country unable to make up its mind about what it wants.

    J. Barzun, Begin Here (204)

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