Evidence on New York City and Boston exam schools

The current admissions approach almost certainly shuts out many gifted, disadvantaged students. When we rely on parents, teachers, or students to make the decision to apply to a program for gifted students (by, for example, voluntarily signing up for a test), evidence indicates it is disadvantaged students who disproportionately get shut out.

But getting rid of the test is not the answer.  Well-educated, high-income parents work the system to get their kids into these programs. The less transparent the approach (e.g., portfolios or teacher recommendations instead of a standardized test) the greater the advantage these savvy, connected parents have in winning the game.

An important step is to make the test universal, rather than one that students choose to take. In the dozen states where college admissions tests are universal (free, required, and given during school hours), many more students take the test and go on to college.[8] The democratizing effect is strongest among low-income and nonwhite students. The same dynamic holds among young children: when testing for giftedness is universal, poor, Black and Hispanic children are far more likely to end up in gifted classes.[9]A school district in Florida showed huge increases in the diversity of its gifted programs when it shifted to using a universal test, rather than recommendations from parents and teachers, to identify gifted students.

Rather than force students to take yet another test, New York could use its existing 7th– and 8th-grade tests to determine admission to the exam schools. These tests are, in principle, aligned to what is taught in the schools and so are an appropriate metric by which to judge student achievement.  When so many are complaining about over-testing, why have yet another test for students to cram and sit for?

The city could go further toward diversifying the student body by admitting the top scorers at each middle school to the exam schools. Texas uses this approach to determine admission to the University of Texas flagships: the top slice (originally 10%, now lower) of students in each high school is automatically admitted to these selective colleges. This ensures that Texas’s elite colleges at least partially reflect the economic, ethnic and racial diversity of the state’s (highly segregated) school system.