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Exam High Schools: Not As Great As We Thought

(Digital Vision)

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.