Exam Schools from the Inside: Racially Diverse, Subject to Collective Bargaining, Fulfilling a Need

Article excerpt

Stuyvesant. Boston Latin. Bronx Science. Thomas Jefferson. Lowell. Illinois Math and Science Academy. These are some of the highest-achieving high schools in the United States. In contrast to elite boarding and day schools such as Andover and Sidwell Friends, however, they are public. And unlike the comprehensive taxpayer-funded options in affluent suburbs such as Palo Alto and Winnetka, they don't admit everyone who lives in their attendance area.

Sometimes called "exam schools," these academically selective institutions have long been a part of the American secondary-education landscape. The schools are diverse in origin and purpose. No single catalyst describes why or how they began as or morphed into academically selective institutions. Some arose from a desire (among parents, superintendents, school boards, governors, legislators) to provide a self-contained, high-powered college-prep education for able youngsters in a community, region, or state. Others started through philanthropic ventures or as university initiatives. A number of them were products of the country's efforts to desegregate--and integrate--its public-education system, prompted by court orders, civil rights enforcers and activists, or federal "magnet school" dollars.

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Exam schools are sometimes controversial because "selectivity" is hard to reconcile with the mission of "public" education. Even school-choice advocates typically assert that, while families should be free to choose their children's schools, schools have no business selecting their pupils. Other people are troubled by reports of insufficient "diversity" among the youngsters admitted to such schools.

With such criticisms in mind, we set out to explore this unique and little-understood sector of the education landscape. Wanting first to dete-mine how many there are and where they are located, we also wondered whether the "exam school" could be a worthy response to the dilemma of how best to develop the talents of our nation's high-performing and high-potential youth in a climate consumed with gap closing and leaving no child behind. Could the selective public high school play a larger role in educating our country's high-achieving pupils?

Who Goes There?

Almost all the schools have far more applicants than they can accommodate. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed accept fewer than half of their applicants. About one-quarter also reported rising numbers of applications in recent years, perhaps due to media attention, awards, school performance, population growth, and the closing of underperforming schools in the area. Respondents also noted changes in the composition of their applicant pools, mainly increases in the number who are female, Asian, or Hispanic. Several schools reported a decrease in the number of white applicants in recent years. Nearly all schools we surveyed engaged in earnest, wide-ranging out-reach to expand or diversify their applicant pools. A few also engage in "affirmative action" within the selection process.

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The schools' actual admission criteria and procedures are interesting, variegated, and somewhat sensitive. 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.

Viewed as a whole, selective public high schools have a surprising demographic profile. 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. …