If you’re going to let academically weak students into your exam schools, why have exam schools?

“In a Twist, Low Scores Would Earn Admission to Select Schools” (nytimes):

Students with low test scores are usually shut out of New York City’s best public schools.

But next year, such students could be offered a quarter of the sixth-grade seats at even the most selective middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3 as part of a desegregation plan being debated in the district, which stretches from the Upper West Side to Harlem.

The plan is unusual because it focuses explicitly on low-performing students, and seeks to achieve “academic diversity” across the district’s middle schools.

Although it might be the last race-neutral government program in the U.S., I have never been a huge fan of the NY system of sending the smart kids off to a nerd farm. It seems unfair to those who are left behind. They’ll never see the top 10 percent of achievers and therefore will overestimate their abilities. If I were a school dictator, I would set up individualized instruction and extra challenges delivered to the brightest students who stay within a regular school, reserving the magnet schools for special subjects such as arts and music.

If New York is now going to have quotas for academically weak students in their schools for the academically strong, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more sensible to tear down the entire exam school system. Just have “schools” that can cater to both the good and bad students.

Readers: What do you think? Does an exam school become pointless if people who fail the exam are also admitted?

[Separately, a friend’s daughter recently graduated from what is perhaps America’s toughest high school: Stuveysant. She crushed the entrance exam, got grades near the top of her class, and scored 1580 out of 1600 on the SATs. She rejected advice to “pull an Elizabeth Warren” and check a box to identify as a member of a victim group. She was in turn rejected by Yale, despite being, objectively, one of the best-educated 18-year-olds in the United States. To me this shows just how tough the U.S. has become for young people. When I was in high school (late 1970s), anyone who was reasonably bright and willing to work hard would get into an Ivy League college. To young people who might be impressed that I have an undergrad degree from MIT… close to 50 percent of people who applied to become members of the Class of 1982 were admitted. It was a different world!]

28 thoughts on “If you’re going to let academically weak students into your exam schools, why have exam schools?

  1. A hypothesis: This is all related to the pursuit of instant gratification. Why do we take a black student at the 85 percentile and put him with students at the 99.99% at MIT where he fails instead of sending him to be the valedictorian at the University of Texas? We seem to think that getting into the prestigious college is the reward in and of itself, rather than part of a long, great career. Therefore admissions have to be “fair” and thus they have to redress “historical wrongs.”

    NYC seems to be applying the same principal to high schools.

  2. Yep, this is going to turn out really stupid. The underperforming students are going to be out of their depth and the overall curriculum will have to be modified to reduce the failure rate. It will not only no help them, it’ll worsen things for the students already there.

  3. Reminds me of what the FAA had done to ATC folks during the Obama administration. A friend of mine was rejected for an ATC job despite having gone to a special college and gotten an actual ATC license. He failed the diversity test. Here is a good synopsis of it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lw1JbvgtBzE What is the point of even having standards? A friend went to a good law school and claimed he had a learning disability which allowed him to take untimed standardized tests. Of course now he is a lawyer and bills by the hour at the same rate as everyone else. I guess my point is why even have any standards at all????

  4. I believe the concept is that you would take students who closely missed out on passing the test but were from schools that likely did not have tons of test-prep for their students. I do not know what the cutoffs are but lets say it is 90%. I certainly think a student with no or limited test-prep who got an 85% is not at all necessarily less gifted and predicted to perform less well than a student who did massive test-prep for 6+months and got 90%.

    In the past before the huge increase in test-prep, these exam schools were getting a much more (although still of course not close to general population percentages) representative sample of people by ethnic diversity than they are currently and this seems a trend worth trying to fight against, as long as it can be done so without significantly devaluing the exam school concept.

    I went this past weekend to the Hunter College High School reunion with my girlfriend and the difference in makeup of the classes was extremely obvious at a glance, with a much higher numbers of Asian students in the current classes and a much lower number of African American students.

  5. Aaron Fuegi: Asians really are that much more academically gifted than whites and minorities. It’s not possible to test prep for Caltech but still, Asians now dominate undergrads.

  6. I think the reason to preserve the schools is that attending Stuyvesant et al. is a prestige thing and it’s better (from a politician’s perspective) to grant a few undeserving students the honor of attending Stuy than to simply dismantle it: the politician now gets to bill himself as an egalitarian crusader for racial and class justice, thus improving his standing with some percentage of his voters, and forcing a few marginally capable kids through that pipeline will produce some meretricious feel-good stories for PR purposes. I agree that it would be better to have extra programs for talented students (say, a minimum top 10% of each high school gets gifted education, can be expanded at the district’s discretion) but the magnate schools have too deeply rooted to be gotten rid of.

    With that said de Blasio seems to be treading on thin ice with many of his education initiatives and angering the large number of superficially leftist (i.e., hypocritical) New Yorkers. Whether that’s a mark of integrity or stupidity I haven’t decided yet.

  7. Aaron: I don’t think they are placing “near-miss” students. From the NYT: “Even parents who support the broader goal of desegregation have raised concerns about placing students who score a 1 or 2 — the bottom half on a scale of 1 to 4 — into rigorous middle schools without adequate preparation and support.”

    So they are taking students who score below-average and putting them into schools that previously accepted only the top-scoring students.

    It is actually the somewhat-above-average students who are now guaranteed to be excluded. They didn’t score high enough to get in under the old “take the best” system. They didn’t score low enough to be considered intellectual basket cases who qualified for affirmative action.

    This is maybe an example of a general rule in the U.S.: You don’t want to be in the middle! The free good stuff is reserved for folks at the bottom. The not-free good stuff is priced out of reach except for folks at the top. (Manhattan housing works the same way; you can live comfortably in Manhattan if you either (a) make no money and have a friend in the public housing ministry, or (b) make over $1 million per year. If you’re in the middle… commute 3 hours per day round-trip from New Jersey.)

  8. At Stuy 76% if the kids are minority and over 50% are poor (receive free lunch). Some travel an hour or two hours in each direction and then return home to work in the family Chinese restaurant in Flushing. But they are not politically favored minorities, which underperform based on objective standards, so the strong arm of the government helps the politically strong at the expense of the politically weak. But I thought the Constitution was supposed to prohibit that.

    The idea that these poor minorities are gaining admission because of expensive tutoring is obviously ridiculous — first, they are mostly poor (if they were rich they would opt out of the public system) so they cant afford expensive tutoring. Second the admissions exam is basically an IQ test and it is dubious that tutoring will accomplish much.

    One of the reasons admission to the top universities is so difficult is that a substantial number of places are set aside for racially favored groups. If you compare admission numbers of Harvard (secretly administered race preferences) with CIT (no race preferences) you might estimate that as much as 25% of the incoming Harvard student body is there because of race preferences. So a lot of people, mostly Asians don’t get in because of their race.

    We all like to think about how brave we might have been if we had been in I don’t know Birmingham in 1962 but we now look the other way when different politically minorities are being discriminated against because, in Phil’s words, they are just “nerds.”

  9. The obvious solution is to turn more schools into exam schools, which could exist at multiple tiers. So you have a few for the 1% kids (about 916 per grade in a 1.1M student system), more for the next 5%, and many for the next 20%, until you get to the point where kids that are on or above grade level don’t have to go to the same classes with kids that can’t read.

  10. Stuyvesant and Bronx Science are where the kids in central Queens go who cannot get into Townsend Harris.

    The good news is that this has put the Asian communities in a hot lather. The Chinese, Indians, and Pakistanis might disagree on the Kashmir border, but they all agree that this plan is awful. The rainbow coalition of People Of Color is fragmenting.

    There are plenty of choices outside the selective test schools:


    Aviation High School, for instance, would appeal to this blog’s audience.


  11. My sister was a middle school teacher in California. She once told me that her mission was “to save the at-risk student”. She said the upper half of her students were going to get into college anyway, they could learn whatever they needed there. She claimed this attitude was typical of her fellow teachers.

    Individual classrooms probably vary considerably, but even when it isn’t viewed as the primary “mission” I suspect there is often a tendency to “teach to the bottom” otherwise the lower 20% of the classroom will be completely left behind. Those students will require disproportionate time and effort from the teacher, leaving little attention and resources for the top 20%.

    In light of the previous observations, here’s a modest proposal. Administer a standardized test to all students every two years starting at age 13. Those with high scores (the top 20% perhaps) would be thrown out of school and encouraged to join the work force. They should be able to learn whatever they needed on the job or from the Internet. That way the education system could focus it’s energy and resources on the remaining students who actually needed help learning. The economy would benefit from from an infusion of bright young people who would be performing productive tasks instead of spending years being unproductively locked up in classrooms.

  12. The notion that not sending the brightest kids to exam schools will permit other students to see the top 10 percent of achievers and get a realistic sense of their abilities was not the reality in my experience.

    I attended a NYC public, non-exam, high school in the ’60s. There was a school-within-a-school called the “extra-honors program.” There were about 30 of us in our class. Over the course of my three years there, I don’t recall having any significant interaction with students from outside the program. They certainly never had the opportunity to gauge themselves against our academic performance.

    Sidenote: George Wallace would have envied the de facto segregation that the NYC school system enforcedin those days. I attended NYC public schools in the Bronx and Queens from kindergarten through 12th grade — and had exactly zero black students in any of my classes.

    PS: my experience also differed from yours in terms of the ability of students to be accepted at Ivy League schools in those days. In fact, there was still an informal quota system at the time, limiting the number of Jewish students admitted. Despite being a extra-honors student with very high SAT scores, a National Merit semi-finalist, an Eagle Scout, etc., I couldn’t get into Princeton, and knew I wouldn’t be accepted by Cornell’s College of Arts & Sciences. Instead, I settled for the less selective ILR school there.

    When I got to Cornell, I was shocked to find many prep school kids in Arts & Sciences who had graduated in the middle of their class with SATs in the 1100 range. Any kid from my HS with such credentials would have been laughed at for throwing away his $10 application fee.

  13. My sister was a middle school teacher in California. She once told me that her mission was “to save the at-risk student”. She said the upper half of her students were going to get into college anyway, they could learn whatever they needed there. She claimed this attitude was typical of her fellow teachers.

    It seems this is almost a general tenet among teachers. In some countries, like Sweden, it’s also convenient because education students are also the worst of the university student population and so might have problems to usefully guide the brighter of their charges.

    I’d say it’s a good argument for streaming students into different tracks if nothing else.

  14. The procedure looks like this:

    1. Few bad students admitted because of racism/sexism/homophobia, so admit more of the bad class to the selective school.

    2. Bad students are unready for the selective school and fail, because of racism/sexism/homophobia, so more of the bad class are passed regardless of results.

    3. Credentials from selective school no longer have the expected prestige, because of racism/sexism/homophobia. Good students go elsewhere.

  15. The problem here is with our public schooling system. The focus is on academics excellence and nothing else as if everyone is capable and “equal”.

    What we need is acknowledgement that by middle school, you know if a student is ready for academic collage or not. If not, then by high school have those students prepared into trade school education. This is much better than creating a sub-school within the school for the well off students or to place all students in the same “basket”. Germany has such programs and I think France too and several European counties.

    Cites and towns need to spend money on building more trace school instead of renovating existing schools [1] and wasting tax payers money. In fact, there should be a trade school per academic school.

    [1] http://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/06/01/why-it-costs-more-than-500-per-square-foot-to-build-a-school-in-massachusetts/

  16. Why is a recalibration of your (over)estimate of your abilities (by observing the top 10%) less valuable in music or art than in other subjects?

  17. “Pull an Elizabeth warren”
    I think it’s been established that she never used a claim of partial minority ancestry for any possible gain but just mentioned it in a not particularly significant context. And then the trolls ( this blog ?) tried to make something of it.
    Of course this is the same blog that tried to repeat the nonsense about Gore claiming he invented the internet until being quickly and decisively reminded that what Gore did was play a leading role legislatively.

  18. They have the same issue where I live with minorities being under represented at the highly rated magnet schools. The solutions seem to be essentially lower admission standards. Meanwhile the elementary schools have “gifted and talented “ programs that seem to be pretty much worthless. Why not make those programs really effective so the top kids can get in the magnet programs with no lowering of standards and the other kids in the program who don’t go on to the magnet schools can also benefit.

  19. Good public school teacher’s professional self-esteem is based on how many marginal kids I they can move into the mainstream. As a parent of several intellectually gifted children, my expectations of teachers conflict with this.

    Short of tracking, its hard to resolve this.

  20. I have two kids who went to highly selective NYC public high schools. My daughter graduated from LaGuardia HS for the Performing Arts (the “Fame” school) and my son went to Bronx Science (for 1 year).

    When she auditioned, my daughter was already an extremely accomplished musician, with years of classical piano lessons, theory and voice training. She got in easily. But LaG was not only looking for accomplishment, they were also looking for aptitude and potential, the kids who might not have had the benefit of all the lessons my daughter had, but still might have talent and drive and would benefit from attending a special school. The student body at LaG was amazingly diverse and I saw many kids blossom in their 4 years there. I think this is a rational approach, certainly for the arts.

    In middle school, my son expressed an interest in taking the test for the highly selective schools (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, et al). We got him a tutor, he worked hard and made the cut at Science. He was excited to go but the reality was that it wasn’t for him. The workload was insane, he was up doing homework until 1am many nights and had no time for music (he’s a pianist and composer and attends Juilliard Pre-college on the weekends). After a year he agreed to switch to a new HS for musically gifted kids where I’m happy to say he is thriving.

    The emphasis on test scores alone does not make sense to me. Some will say it is the fairest way to judge, but it is only one measure. Kids are hardly complete at age 14 and the system encourages families to start their kids prepping for the test YEARS in advance (we did not, but I know many do). Certainly, some who get in have mastered the test, but that doesn’t make them good students.

    There’s got to be a way to look at other factors, consider at least some of those who would likely benefit from studying at the best public schools – which have some of the best teachers, facilities, extracurricular activities. I don’t think we’re talking about denying the opportunity to future Nobel Prize winners (Science alumni have won 8) or bringing down the reputation of these schools. But by looking a little deeper than just points scored on a test, we could end up making a difference in the lives of some kids who might not otherwise have the chance.

  21. @George A. – journalist Louis Uchitelle in his recent book “Making It, Why Manufacturing Still Matters,” draws a parallel between the decline of manufacturing in the US and the now decades-long trend of school districts across the county shuttering trade high schools.


  22. Test prep doesn’t help that much. Kids who go to test prep are smart children of smart parents, and would do well no matter what.

    Give free test prep to everyone and the results wouldn’t change. Half of kids are below average in academic and cognitive aptitude. If you gave out free test prep they would find another excuse.

    If you want to keep kids in the same school, that’s fine, but they need to be tracked, and that’s anathema these days. It would involve standardized testing, and there would be effective segregation within tracks, since the usual suspects would score high and low on the tests.

    Putting dumb kids in with normal kids causes the dumb kids to act up. Putting really smart kids in with normal kids shortchanges the smart kids, who are going to be running things in the end and should therefore be given a careful, challenging education.

    The elite high schools were a way to keep tracking alive for middle income families after it was officially banned. The rich can send their kids to private schools, Jewish schools, and the like. Next up we may see net-enabled home schooling, where self selected groups of smart families create virtual schools with other families. California though is trying to crack down on home schooling.

  23. @anon – I’m guessing you do not have kids who have been through any significant standardized testing recently. If you can point me to research that confirmes “Test prep doesn’t help that much. Kids who go to test prep are smart children of smart parents, and would do well no matter what” I’d love to see it.

    NYC high school admission is incredibly competitive and for the most prestigious schools is based solely on a single test score, so test prep is crucial, very often the difference between making the cut or not. Becoming familiar with the types of questions asked, learning the “tricks” of test-taking, practicing time-management, etc. etc.

    And we’re not talking about 1-2 practice sessions, in some cases, we’re talking about YEARS of private tutoring or expensive test prep courses. My son worked with a tutor for about 8 months before the test and I know it made a difference for him.

    “Putting dumb kids in with normal kids” – who said anything about “dumb” kids? We’re talking about leveling the playing field and creating a system that isn’t just about a single test.

  24. I think my friend’s daughter who got into Stuy bought a $15 SHSAT test prep book on Amazon.com. She never had a private tutor, certainly. She also self-studied with a book for the SATs (but maybe with a private tutor she could have gotten 1600 instead of the 1580 that she did score; fortunately she is not Asian-American, in which case effectively 50 points would have been substracted from her score (see http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-adv-asian-race-tutoring-20150222-story.html )).


    seems to be the best study of the effects of coaching on SAT and SAT-like tests. The score boost is 6-12 points on verbal and 13-26 points on math (i.e., less than 30 points out of 1600). In other words, for the purposes of college admission it is far more harmful to be Asian than it is helpful to go to an SAT test prep class.

  25. Bill: Do your ideas about test prep make sense at a high level? What if we considered K-12 to be 6 hours/day of “test prep” for whatever tests K-12 students ordinarily take. About half of the people who attend these “test prep” sessions end up scoring below average. But you’re saying that if only they had test prep courses for the SHSAT they would crush it? Other than the fact that the people who teach SHSAT classes can be fired for putting in near-zero effort, unlike unionized public school teachers, what is the practical difference between sitting in an SHSAT test prep course and sitting in an ordinary K-12 classroom?

    (And if privately-run SHSAT test prep courses are so effective than nearly every graduate can do well on the SHSAT, why not shut down NYC K-12 and just provide vouchers to schools run by the same folks who run the SHSAT courses? The private test prep companies are able to hire instructors for about $25/hour. See https://www.quora.com/How-much-do-Princeton-Review-and-Stanley-Kaplan-pay-their-teachers-per-hour )

    Average NYC public school janitor was making $109,467 per year in 2013 (see https://nypost.com/2015/09/20/average-nyc-school-janitor-makes-109k-a-year/ ). Looks as though a teacher could hit the $100k number at age 40 (start at 22 and work for 18 year and get an online masters), but would likely never overtake the average janitor. http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/7AF6C566-C667-446A-BB24-E956EC857725/0/SalaryScheduleTeachers5117.pdf shows that a teacher starting at 22 would hit the max base 9-month salary of about $114,000 per year at age 44. Presumably the janitors have gotten some pay raises since 2013. Perhaps the teachers need to be paid more than the janitors in order for them to do their best work?

  26. @philg Sadly, so much of K-12 in this post “no child left behind” era is test prep. Does it make sense? I don’t know.

    I never said everyone who does test prep will crush the test. That isn’t true for any instruction or practice in any discipline. Can anyone play the piano with enough lessons? No. Are there some people even you cannot teach to fly a helicopter?

    I’m glad your friend’s daughter was able to get into Stuy without much prep/cost. But that’s not the reality of many, many kids, especially, I believe, those near the cut-off point. But I suspect a 1580 scoring young woman would have been well above the threshold without any prep. I’m not worried about those kids, they’ll do fine, but for many, prep is the deciding factor, the difference between getting in or going to a different school.

    I’ll come back to my earlier point; does mastering a test always mean you deserve a spot in a specialized school? Or should we also use some other criteria?

  27. @philg 25

    The Princeton Review may pay its instructors $25/hour, but they charge their customers much more than that.

  28. @Bill S

    “I’m not worried about those kids, they’ll do fine”

    These are the kids I want in school with my kids.

    Similarly, I want the doctor who didn’t have to take the prep course to pass boards.

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