A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools

Posted by: Bostonian

A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 11/27/20 05:03 AM

A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools. Instead of fixing public education, the left tries to end testing at schools it deems inequitable.
By Chester E. Finn Jr.
Wall Street Journal
November 25, 2020

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has fired the latest salvo in America’s assault on meritocracy: a 61-page opinion holding that the suburban Loudoun County school system discriminated against black and Hispanic youngsters because its selective-admission high school, the Academies of Loudon, hadn’t admitted enough of them. Never mind that—as Mr. Herring acknowledged—the school’s test-based admissions process is open to all and fairly managed. Because its results have a “disparate impact,” the school system must scrap it.

Nationwide, selective-admission public schools, also known as “exam schools,” are under attack because the demographics of their student populations don’t match those of their communities. Much like elite universities, critics allege, these schools have been admitting far too many whites and Asians and not nearly enough blacks and Latinos.

The ruckus began in New York, where admission to nine of the city’s hundreds of high schools is governed by the eighth-grader’ scores on a specialized admission test. Topping the list are Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, and there’s no denying that they’re full of Asian and white kids, many from low-income and middle-class families. This has raised hackles for decades, but Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor have recently pushed to make the admissions process more “equitable.” They want to reserve places for black and Latino children, abolish the entry exam, and instead admit top students from every middle school in the city.

But is every middle school churning out eighth-graders with the requisite skills and knowledge to succeed at Bronx Science? Are all children who make good grades eager, motivated learners ready to make the most of what these high-powered schools have to offer?


Achievement gaps are widespread across America among kids from different backgrounds. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 13% of white eighth-grade students reached the “advanced” level in math last year, as did 31% of Asian kids, compared with only 2% and 4% of black and Hispanic children. Students who aren’t doing advanced math by the end of middle school aren’t likely to succeed in selective-entry high schools. But tackling that problem by abolishing tests and randomizing admission forfeits excellence in favor of fake equity.


Finn co-authored Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools.

There are substantial racial differences both on low-stakes tests such as the NAEP, state achievement tests mandated by NCLB, and IQ tests, and on high-stakes tests such as the SAT and ACT that students prepare for. Is the country going to define equity as equal treatment and non-discrimination or by equal results that can only obtained through racial preferences? I support the former.
Posted by: Wren

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 11/27/20 05:59 AM

Stuyvesant is mostly Asian. Because it is test oriented. Not grade oriented. Hunter allows only certain grades to take their test. But that was the Harvard lawsuit. If it was strictly tests, it would be mostly Asian. And why they let first college people of color get in with much lower test scores. I have read their profiles on college confidential. Some kids were shocked they got in with their 1470 SAT score. But they were in poor neighborhoods, were African american and first time college in their family and I think that is a good thing. You will not get those kids in Stuyvesant. And like DD's school, 80% Chinese. Not Asian, chinese. Maybe 10% white. But white parents don't really care about math and science here.
Posted by: aeh

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 11/27/20 06:18 AM

This actually speaks to the more critical point that inequities in educational opportunities start much earlier than selective-school admissions, or even school entry itself. Attempting to increase equity with quotas alone--whether or not there are subtle discriminatory qualities to the selection process--papers over the true inequities that persist among populations with diverse demographics of many kinds, including both poverty and institutional racism. Access to a selective program at 8th grade will not erase the previous eight or nine years of potentially subpar educational environments both in school and out of it.

That doesn't mean there is never a good reason to look thoughtfully at disproportionality along racial or other lines (e.g., there is a longstanding statistic that students with special needs are significantly more likely to be disciplined, even after controlling for those with behavioral disorders), but solutions should address root causes, instead of artificially changing the outcome markers so policy-makers and institutions can feel better about themselves.

Schools can't change everything about society (although many educators try to help their students on every level, often at great personal cost), but they can choose how they distribute resources and priorities with regard to their own underperforming K-8 schools. Research has consistently found that most parents of students in underperforming schools are just as invested in their children's education as those in more affluent, higher-performing schools, often contributing far more financially, as a percentage of income--but they have fewer resources to work with in time, money and educationally-relevant skills. Improvements there would impact not only the tiny fraction who might move on to selective high schools, but also the other 90+% of students who definitely won't.
Posted by: Wren

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 11/28/20 05:40 AM

There was HG elementary school based in east harlem. Most middle class parents didn't want send their kids there. So it drew kids with lower scores from the surrounding area, but it had great facilities, had an HG curriculum etc. And there has been a high number of charter schools in Harlem etc. When my peer group was in high school, Styvescant was mostly jewish. DH roommate at Harvard came out of Sty, and his wife who was also Harvard. When their children went to Sty, over 15 years ago, he said that the democraphics had totally changed. Over 85% of the parents were Asian. He said that he was in the room for the advanced math and all the other parents were Asian. Not one other white parent. Why is it that even white kids with all the advantages are not getting in with pure testing, no onther criteria? I find myself in the minority in general among white parents. They just think math and science are not as critical. Look at medical schools. Most of the students are asian. I think it is parenting. The chinese parents make jokes about me that I am more Chinese then them. Because I pushed the importance of math and science to have choices and I think survive in a future world. I don't think white parents are as invested in their children's futures as you write. I think most are laissez faire.
Posted by: Eagle Mum

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 11/28/20 12:29 PM

I’m not in the US, but the same phenomenon occurs here. There are Caucasian parents who value maths & science but they don’t think it’s appropriate to send their kids to after school & weekend tutoring for ten hours a week, as many Asian & Indian parents do.
Posted by: Wren

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 11/29/20 07:33 AM

My kid did not do after school and weekend tutoring. She did accelerated math in CTY for years. That is what most Asian kids do. They attend accelerated programs on weekends, like Olympiad school here. They promote accelerated studies. I find in my discussions with European ethnic parents, that they just want their kids "to enjoy". My kid likes the social, can get distracted, fall down a hole on a test or something. And then she gets upset because she doesn't want a bad grade and then pushes and applies herself to bring up the grade. Less now that she is in a critical year. But she wants Harvard, she wants to get a PhD and do something in deep deep ocean stuff (which scares me personally going under water like that) but it would have been really easy to just let her ride the public school path, and those options would probably not be open to her. Not in today's world. I am an older parent. I had older parents. They went through the depression and WW2, left europe without anything but education and that was drilled into me. Education that provided a job. Engineering, medicine. And my late husband had a similar background and was a physician. He and I were totally in sync that you had to make education a priority. And it wasn't that she didn't have a childhood. There were a lot of Barbies and disney dresses. And for 2, 3 and 4 years of age, there was Disney world. Then there was the world and at 15 she has been to 7 continents. She has been to King Tut's tomb and to Tibet. She has "camped" on Antarctica and seen Moscow. She sails, been to regular camp, rides horses and a bunch of other stuff. I do not stand over her with a yardstick. She was a piano prodigy but when it was apparent she didn't love it, I allowed her to stop. I think it is the American (and I am also American) mentality to find education that is suppose to be provided, while the Asian mentality is that I will provide what isn't available. Hence, the Olympiad schools.
Posted by: aeh

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 11/29/20 09:47 AM

I think another key difference between the American mentality and some higher-achieving cultures is the idea that academic achievement is based mainly on inborn talent, vs achievement based on hard work and perseverence in problem solving. Which is curious, given the mythology of "up-by-your-bootstraps" American success which is so pervasive in business and sports. The entrepreneurial attitude appears to stop at the schoolhouse doors.

I have had many students who perceived themselves as unable to excel academically, and yet they were willing to put in countless hours, and overcome many obstacles, in their pursuit of athletic prowess or adolescent business success. (Actually, I had a self-aware young person the other day comment that they were willing to work hard, persistently, on monotonous, repetitive skills drills to improve their athletic game, but not to do the same for academics, despite knowing that it would improve academic performance.)
Posted by: Wren

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 11/29/20 12:50 PM

I grew up in a petrochemical town and kids could leave high school, with a diploma or not, and get a union job in a refinery or chemical plant, good wages, benefits, full retirement package. And I think there is a huge mindset in middle America that should still exist. And there is a similar mindset that if your kid goes to college, they should get a good job and be able to have a life with a decent salary, etc etc. I am of the opinion that both those scenarios are historical. And that frames my opinions as a parent. I have said to my kid many many times that opportunities are such that even with in born talent or intelligence, the hard worker will generally win out. If you have the talent and do the work, then you have advantage.

How many times have parents written that they have kids with top scores, great backgrounds and still cannot get into the colleges of their choice. Twenty years ago, they would have easily got into the schools they wanted with similar scores. Competition increases every year.
Posted by: Eagle Mum

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 11/30/20 11:12 AM

Originally Posted By: Wren
it would have been really easy to just let her ride the public school path, and those options would probably not be open to her.

This is the reason I take issue with the selective school system over here. About 8-9 years ago, I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth (when I made a phone enquiry with the Dept of Education about whether my eldest could sit a couple of HSC subjects in Yr 11 which is an option available at selective schools) that gifted students are catered for by selective schools and therefore there are no facilities to cater for gifted students in mainstream schools.

This made me realise that by having two different streams within the public school system, many students in the nonselective schools are not being supported to reach their potential.

Fortunately for my younger two, there were a number of changes to senior teaching staff at our local high school and DS successfully sat the selective school exam to demonstrate his capabilities. We then met with senior staff to discuss what they would offer him, before we made the decision to enrol him. Our local school has been great in living up to their promises and DS has the best of both worlds - support to explore his potential without having to commute hours a day which many selective school students have to do, so if anything, he is at an advantage (it has been mutually beneficial since DS is the school’s poster child for showcasing their achievements). All this did require a lot of parental effort to lay down the groundwork (& their older sister as a trailblazer with high achievements largely by her own steam), so I’m very sympathetic to other families who lament that they are torn between the selective school system which seems like an education arms race and their local schools which offer very little and can therefore personally testify that there are many Caucasian families who do care about academics even if their children end up languishing in mainstream schools. Little wonder that the private school system (which I do not support) has managed to expand so quickly in the market.
Posted by: Eagle Mum

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 12/04/20 01:59 PM

I’ve come back here to state that I’m (obviously) not against supporting gifted kids, but think the binary segregation between selective & nonselective schools leaves many out in the cold. I am in favour of streaming within a school (with different streams for each subject), where every child is given appropriate support - be it the opportunity to radically accelerate in a subject like maths or additional tuition in a small group so they can close learning gaps and move forward.

At the very least, if we must have selective schools, policymakers & administrators should not assume that one size fits all for everyone else who attends comprehensive schools, an attitude which I have personally come across frequently.
Posted by: Wren

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 12/05/20 02:20 PM

Depends on the population of the community of what you can make available. NYC has a large population so there a few highly selective high schools, Sty has a class size of about 800. That is a large high school. And that is all top scorers. Then you have Bronx Sci and Brooklyn Tech and Nest. And the smaller Lehman math and science. They don't need or want to mix it up. They want to provide for the students that want and need a HG accelerated program with a lot of AP classes etc. There is also arts high schools and design high schools and whatever. And it is easy for colleges to find students with a great education. If you are Rhode Island school of design, then I am sure you look at the design high schools. I don't know. Toronto, a very large city and they do have what you might be talking about. They have 3 programs, at different schools, that take 60 kids each into a math and science program,accelerate them. And they are on track for AP math and sciences. Now other kids in those schools can also do the AP courses, but do not get accelerated math and sciences in the first 2 years. Unless they do it themselves online. You get a mixed bag in that kind of high school. But you also get cliques. Those 60 kids stick together, and think of themselves as in the TOPS or MAST program. I am not sure that is so good. DD is in a private academic, that used to be free, accelerated from 7th grade in maths and sciences. But all the kids got in and got accelerated. They are not separated from a different group in the same school. They all got into the school after 2 rounds of testing. Just like those specialty high schools in NYC. And isn't the Chicago math and science high school, the same? Which one is better? To be part of a specialty program in a broadly differentiated high school or where everyone has to test to a certain level to get in? Sort of like colleges. If MIT had a broad mix of students, would it be MIT?
Posted by: Eagle Mum

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 12/05/20 08:14 PM

Thanks for the time you took to provide details of the education landscape in your part of the world. The Toronto schools, from what you describe, still have separate systems - they are just geographically co-located whereas my ideal would be schools which can cater for everyone, with different subject streams, such that a student might perhaps be in the top class in some subjects (where acceleration should be available) but in the middle or even bottom classes in others (since many are not gifted in every area). This should be re-evaluated annually as some students may suddenly take off in a subject if they find the passion & motivation for that subject. Our local school has adopted many of these features over recent years and they seem to be paying off. I am very happy with our school now, but have been drawn into conversations by parents of students in other schools within our area and they remain frustrated with the lack of opportunities at their school, as I used to be when my eldest first started at ours.
Posted by: Wren

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 12/06/20 04:18 AM

I think that the problem with your proposition is that often, HG kids would be bored and staring out the window and the teacher doesn't think of them as gifted. And MG kids tend to be identified by teachers. If you are talking about some type of yearly testing, that is expensive. I think in most high schools, if a student is motivated, they can accelerate. I had skipped in grade school, when they had standard skipping in grade 4. And in high school I could choose my subjects and skip another year. In a regular high school. In grade school, that cannot happen with a lack of resources that most schools experience. You need better school systems in poverty areas, to enhance opportunities. And covid has really destroyed some kids education in those areas, where parents don't have resources to help them. Very sad.
Posted by: Eagle Mum

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 12/06/20 04:48 PM

No, I'm not suggesting annual testing in high school. I meant an annual performance review, so later bloomers also have opportunities, instead of locking the majority of students into either selective in or nonselective schools at age 11 or 12.
Posted by: Wren

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 12/06/20 04:59 PM

in north america, it is 14. Most eighth graders are 13. Unless you skip or get red shirted, then you could be 15 entering high school. But then an annual review in elementary school would be done with the teacher and be subjective and how do you get around the fact that so many bored HG kids could perform poorly?

There is a whole thing going on with online high school that because they needed to hire a bunch of teachers to do it, there are easy As being online. How do you evaluate for college entrance when there are a bunch of inflated grades due to substitute teachers not caring. I know that covid is an aberation but it affects 2 years of kids applying to universities.
Posted by: Eagle Mum

Re: A Progressive Assault on Selective High Schools - 12/06/20 09:42 PM

Over here, there’s no middle school in the public system (a small number of private schools use the term but they are K-12 so it’s more of an administrative division). Consequently, the average age of kids entering high school is twelve & a half. The selective high school exam is held in Yr 6, so students are 11-12 y.o. when they sit the paper. I suppose that’s different to the US.

There’s no good solution that I can see. I personally think the school system here needs a major overhaul with a multi-Billion dollar coaching industry, but a lot of people seem to accept the status quo (including the poor kids who commute four hrs a day because SHS catchment areas don’t have boundaries, so many families rank their preferences based on school outcomes & not where they live).