Every year, herds of pimply eighth graders file anxiously into classrooms across the country to take one of several special exams. The stakes are high. Students who perform well on these exams might earn a coveted seat at one of their city’s selective public high schools. Graduates of these schools go on to matriculate at top colleges and universities, including the University of Michigan. Research from The Daily found that in 2019 a significant number of out-of-state freshmen came from several of these schools: Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech in New York City; Lane Tech and Walter Payton in Chicago; Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.
Selective public high schools (SHSs) are some of the best public schools in the country. They provide an extraordinary catalog of instructional and extracurricular resources, create spaces for high-caliber students to learn and socialize with one another and are considered a foothold for upward economic mobility, especially among working-class, Asian-American immigrant households. They also admit a small number of Black and Hispanic kids — Chicago Public Schools’ system is the only slight outlier. Stuyvesant High School in New York City, for example, admitted only eight Black students in 2021 out of 749 spots, even though Black students make up 26% of NYC’s public school system.
Initiatives to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students attending SHSs have been numerous and often politically controversial. Bill de Blasio, former New York City mayor, tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the entrance exam at several of NYC’s schools in 2019. New Yorkers pushed back forcefully against the idea, killing de Blasio’s hopes for the New York Legislature to pass the measure.
In 2020, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology instituted a new merit-based lottery admissions system. The school eliminated its entrance exam, began considering applicants’ socioeconomic status and mandated that at least 1.5% of students from each middle school in the region be admitted. As a consequence of the policy, the racial composition of the current freshman class is markedly different than previous years. The percentage of Asian students admitted decreased from 73% to 54%. With respect to economic diversity, 25% of students offered a spot were classified as economically disadvantaged. Notably, the average GPA of the newest class did not change significantly.
That last item did not seem important to the community, however. Outcry at the first consequence was swift and serious: a group of parents quickly filed a lawsuit alleging that the policy unfairly discriminated against Asian students. In a similar series of events, three San Francisco school board members were recalled last week, due in part to the new merit-based lottery admissions system put in place at their district’s SHS, Lowell High School.
I find myself agreeing with the parents’ arguing against lottery systems, to an extent. The issue at stake is similar to the one raised in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, at least with respect to the relationship between Asian students and admissions to elite schools. Using data on New York City’s SHSAT as a proxy, Asian students are more likely to take the SHSAT and perform better on it than other racial groups, as evidenced by the higher number of enrollment offers they receive.
Admissions criteria that devalue test scores are implicitly discriminating against Asian students. In New York, Census data shows Asians have the lowest median income in the city, and therefore do not, by default, have an unfair economic advantage over the students who would benefit from the policy change.
A partial explanation for the success of Asian students in NYC are the grueling test prep classes their parents are more likely to enroll them in to prepare for the SHSAT. That, to me, indicates that even if Asian students perform better on tests, the means by which they do so are drastic. It shows that the education system is failing these students just as poorly as students who don’t suffer through test prep classes and score lower. As I wrote in an earlier column, America’s hyper-fixation on testing tends to crowd out other conversations about our education system and about other proposals to improve it.
The argument on behalf of reforming SHS admissions rests on two main planks: one, that the reformed system would increase the number of Black and Hispanic high-achieving, low-SES students at SPHSs, and two, that these students would benefit from attending these schools. TJHSST and Lowell High School support the first claim. The number of Black and Hispanic students at both schools increased immediately after the merit lotteries were introduced.
The second is less clear. A study conducted by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found negligible differences in academic outcomes between students who fell just under or just above the cutoff score to get into Chicago’s SHSs. Distressingly, the GPAs of students who barely made the cutoff were ultimately lower. The authors qualify this finding with the fact that GPA measures achievement somewhat relative to other students, but even so, that evidence suggests academic gains for these students are marginal, if anything. Competing against students who come from better backgrounds shifts students who don’t lower in the grade distribution, as one would expect. They did find, however, that students at SHSs felt safer and more respected. They also generally reported a higher level of well-being.
A separate study examining low-achieving middle school students in New York City found that these students preferred to attend high schools that were geographically closer, rather than schools with the highest reported educational outcomes. I interpret those findings to mean that families and students balance considerations beyond just academics. The physical burden of a long commute to another school and the emotional tax of transitioning to an unfamiliar social environment are weighty concerns.
We would like to imagine that institutions such as selective public high schools are one of the last few bastions of equal opportunity in this country and therefore inviolable. The belief that entrance exams serve as an impartial, even somewhat moral, sorting mechanism is difficult to challenge. They do rank students efficiently, even if students who score lower are similarly intelligent to those who score higher. Explanations for score differentials are numerous, however, and mostly not related to intelligence. Different levels of income, different primary school resources, non-English first language and cultural attitudes toward test preparation are some of the many factors that come into play alongside intellect. Putting these tests on a pedestal as proof of a fair education system is a shallow argument.
A system that forces students to put themselves through intense mental anguish for the slim chance of admittance to a high school where attendance requires them to leave their community and their friends and start over in a new environment can have negative consequences. They might begin to develop imposter syndrome because they are, for the first time, surrounded by kids who get better grades (because those kids went to a better middle school); this is a bad system. Efforts to reform public education should not be focused on moving kids to better schools, but instead should aim to move better schools to kids. That will require asking hard questions about how we fund our public schools. That might require resources concentrated in SHSs to be distributed, effectively destroying the concept of SHSs as we view them today. Perhaps that’s okay.
Alex Yee is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.