Elite or elitist? Lessons for colleges from selective high schools

An in-depth report on the state of specialized high schools across the nation.

NYC specialized high schools are the only “one-exam-only” admissions in the nation

reformers might do better instead to look to Chicago’s use of area-based geographical tiers. One advantage of this system is that it retains the high-stakes entrance examination but takes inequality into account by having students with similar backgrounds compete against each other rather than pooling students from all backgrounds into one group.

The most radical option is for cities to simply abolish their selective high schools. The evidence for their impact on long-run outcomes is mixed. A number of studies have compared long-run outcomes for students who scored just below and just above the passing score (i.e. with a regression discontinuity design). Reviewing evidence from studies of the New York and Boston schools, Dynarski concludes that there is a “precisely zero effect of the exam schools on college attendance, college selectivity, and college graduation.” A 2018 study of the Chicago schools by Barrow, Sartain and de la Torre comes to similar conclusions concerning college enrollment rates. It is possible that students who scored much higher do reap benefits (or that those who scored considerably lower could do so if admitted). The overall picture however is that students from those schools do well, but many of them were going to do well anyway. Perhaps the energy, political capital, and money going to these schools could be better spent elsewhere.