Exam High Schools: Not As Great As We Thought

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Exam high schools are generally regarded as a cut above, turning out congressmen, scholars, and all-around high achievers. They account for over half of the top 109 American schools in the U.S. News and World Report best high schools list, and an incredible 20 out of 21 from Newsweek’s list of “public elite.”

But a new study from Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer of Harvard throws cold water on this notion, and calls into question whether the exam schools typically cited for excellence are, well, really all that excellent.

Writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dobbie and Fryer take a fresh look into the measurable achievements of exam school students, specifically focusing on three well-known schools in New York City: Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant. While attending an exam school might be great for your overall education, and resume, this doesn’t come through in terms of increased test scores or college achievement. Here’s the abstract:

Publicly funded exam schools educate many of the world’s most talented students. These schools typically contain higher achieving peers, more rigorous instruction, and additional resources compared to regular public schools. This paper uses a sharp discontinuity in the admissions process at three prominent exam schools in New York City to provide the first causal estimate of the impact of attending an exam school in the United States on longer term academic outcomes. Attending an exam school increases the rigor of high school courses taken and the probability that a student graduates with an advanced high school degree. Surprisingly, however, attending an exam school has little impact on Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, college enrollment, or college graduation — casting doubt on their ultimate long term impact.

The numbers on college attendance and graduation are by far the most surprising – exam high schools have a lower college attendance and graduation rate compared to other high schools. The study breaks down the numbers according to individual high schools.

Students just eligible for Brooklyn Tech are 2.3 percentage points less likely to graduate from a four year college. Students just eligible for Bronx Science are 0.7 percentage points less likely to graduate, and students just eligible for Stuyvesant are 1.6 percentage points less likely to graduate, though neither estimate is statistically significant.

Though college graduation and the SATs might not show a winning formula, Fryer and Dobbie are careful to point out that the criteria they’re examining don’t paint the whole story.

… without longer-term measures such as income, health, or life satisfaction, it is difficult to fully interpret our results. To the extent that attending an exam school increases social capital in ways that are important for later outcomes that are independent of college enrollment, graduation, or human capital, then there is reason to believe that our conclusions are premature and the true impact of an elite exam school will only be understood with the passage of time.

 

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  1. Chess Piece Face says:

    What the heck is an “exam school”??

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    • Joe Dokes says:

      It is a public school that uses an exam for entrance. Thus, only the “best and brightest” get in. Once in they grind the living s%$t out of the students.

      I am not surprised at all of the results of this study. We don’t have exam schools per se in Long Beach Ca. but most local high schools have various college prep magnet programs. In 1986 the Long Beach Polytechnic High Schools PACE program required two AP classes for graduating seniors, today it is five. Thus, a high school senior from the PACE program enters college with 15 or more units of college level course work.

      On first glance this would be great, but the anecdotal evidence is not encouraging. I’ve seen numerous students who enter college pre-burnt out. (Colleges even have a term for them, they are called crispies.) Many fail to finish college, and many of those that do, end up majoring in something that has little interest for them, and have not thought through careers they might wish to pursue, so they languish.

      A rigorous high school is necessary for true learning. Many “exam school” programs are more interested in f-ing the US News metric than in actually turning out students who are both prepared for college level work and the desire to actually go to college and learn.

      Regards,

      Joe Dokes

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      • Jestak says:

        “Many “exam school” programs are more interested in f-ing the US News metric than in actually turning out students who are both prepared for college level work and the desire to actually go to college and learn.”

        Sounds like Campbell’s Law has struck again.

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      • Matt says:

        Great…Now what does “just eligible for” mean? Just all students that are eligible for? Students near the cutoff of the eligibility requirements? Eligible for only that school and no other exam high schools? Only eligible for that school and no others period?

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    • Papermate says:

      From what I could find:
      “Students are admitted to the exam schools based on results of an entrance test, called the Independent Schools Entrance Exam (ISEE), and grade point average (GPA).”

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  2. nobody.really says:

    Hm. Counter-intuitive.

    But I like the authors’ caveats: Is college graduation really an appropriate proxy for “good outcomes”? Perhaps people with rigorous high school prep don’t require as many years of college before they leap into the job market. But that hypothesis simply prompts the question, is labor force participation an appropriate proxy for “good outcomes”? Thus the authors suggest studying income, health, and life satisfaction as relevant long-term outcomes. In short, while there may be no agreement about what is the “good outcome,” and there may be no substitute for picking some specific good outcome when attempting to measure the efficacy of education.

    As an aside: My college boasted of the high percentage of its graduates that attend graduate school. Does that mean that I attended a good college (because grad schools recognize the quality of its graduates) or a bad one (because none of the grads could find jobs, and therefore had to pursue a real education elsewhere)?

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  3. Jason says:

    I went to a DC area magnet school, and out of a graduating class of 400, we had one student not going on to a 4-year college. It seems to me that the school didn’t affect the odds of any given student going to college, since the students would have been top-tier students at the public high-school they attended (also, a sizable minority would have gone to private high-schools had they not been admitted to the magnet school).

    The main benefit for me was twofold: no longer being the big fish in the small pond academically, and the ability to form social groups. The latter one was particularly impactful, as “smart kids” was not really a specific enough label, so the cliques formed along different lines there.

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  4. Enter your name says:

    The caveat is important. Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs are all “college dropout”, but nobody would call them failures.

    The social side of these schools is important for bright kids. It helps them redefine themselves in ways other than the stereotypical genius-nerd. Also, it helps them discover that they really *aren’t* better and smarter than everyone else, which is an important life lesson that they will not learn in a mixed-ability classroom. Consequently, I’d like to see a study that measures life satisfaction or general relationship success (not just romantic success).

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  5. Sam says:

    This is not surprising at all. I would expect a similar outcome for a study of those who “just barely” got accepted to MIT, Caltech, etc.

    These borderline students might well be better off being at or near the top of a decent school, rather than struggling at a more demanding and more competitive school.

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    • nobody.really says:

      Interesting point.

      The post talks about the overall rate at which students attend and graduate from college: “The numbers on college attendance and graduation are by far the most surprising – exam high schools have a lower college attendance and graduation rate compared to other high schools.”

      But in support of this statement, the post then cites language that apparently does not discuss the overall attributes of students from these schools, but rather the attributes of the marginal student at these schools: “Students just eligible for Brooklyn Tech are 2.3 percentage points less likely to graduate from a four year college. Students just eligible for Bronx Science are 0.7 percentage points less likely to graduate, and students just eligible for Stuyvesant are 1.6 percentage points less likely to graduate….”

      Maybe someone could clear this up?

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      • Sam says:

        I wasn’t actually clear on that either – I thought it was probably referring to the marginal students, but the language is ambiguous.

        Regardless, I think those marginal students are going to be the bulk of the underachievers in college. It may also be that those marginal students are marginally more likely to go to tougher college than if they hadn’t gone to an exam school – and graduate slightly less often because they aimed too high.

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  6. vimspot says:

    This seems silly, the real questions are do the kids who go to exam schools get into more elite colleges then a similar cohort of peers? Does that translate into higher lifetime earnings? Obviously, those two factors are why parents want their kids to go to exam schools.

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  7. mfw13 says:

    Also keep in mind that the kids who get into “exam” schools (or magnet schools are they are more commonly know) are by definition very smart and/or movitated and therefore likely to be successful irrespective of which high school they end up attending.

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  8. Seth says:

    Congressmen and scholars are considered high achievers?

    Maybe conspicuous achievers, but not necessarily high achievers. It would make sense to me that students who are drawn to exam schools would also be drawn to other forms of conspicuous achievements.

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