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New Book Examining Elite Public Schools Raises Equity Versus Excellence Concerns

Christine Miller

SOURCE: AP/Amy Conn-Gutierrez

Christine Miller, an art teacher at Dallas's Talented and Gifted Magnet school, talks about Thomas Cole's 1836 painting "The Oxbow."

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Across the nation there has been an increasing focus on “gifted and talented” public school students. As state and local budget cuts put strain on programs aimed at these students—with only four states (Iowa, Georgia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma) mandating and fully funding gifted and talented programs—states and school districts are working to keep their programs alive.

The scope of these programs range from the “Georgia Governor’s Honors Program”—a summer program offered by the Atlanta Public Schools that is designed to provide advanced high school students with enrichment opportunities not usually available during the regular school year—to Mustang Public Schools’ (in Mustang, Oklahoma) “GATE” program, a gifted and talented education plan that helps students focus on everything from broadening intellectual functioning to enhancing creativity. And despite no available funding, this fall the District of Columbia Public Schools found a way to pilot its first gifted and talented program at two middle schools with lagging enrollment.

Against this backdrop, a recently released book, Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools, explores some of our nation’s most elite public high schools—high schools consisting of solely gifted and talented students. Written by Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett and published by Princeton University Press, the book gives readers a glimpse into these schools for scholastically high-achieving youngsters. Finn, the former assistant secretary of education, and Hockett, a highly respected education consultant, use these academically selective schools as a vehicle to address a perhaps overlooked dilemma in American education: In our pursuit of providing an equal opportunity for all students, have we unintentionally set the bar too low for our nation’s brightest young scholars?

While equity at the expense of excellence is a significant concern, instead of pitting one against the other, we should focus on improving both simultaneously. Teachers and school leaders in many states and districts across the nation are working on this inclusive education model, with professional development focused on strategies involving differentiation techniques and other proven strategies in order to reach students at their varying learning levels and help propel them forward. When implemented properly, the inclusive model allows students of all ability levels to learn together in the same classroom under the same instructor.

Nonetheless, the exam schools model may appeal to some of our nation’s academically advanced students. Exam schools take the “whole school” approach to educating these students. Instead of offering Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate classes to groups of students within a traditional high school, exam schools provide only an accelerated curriculum to all students, from the outset admitting only the most exceptionally able and high-achieving applicants to their programs. While often tagged with the stigma generally associated with gifted and talented programs—that white students are disproportionately represented—in actuality, no ethnic group comprises more than 35 percent of the total enrollment of all exam schools combined (although individual schools tend to reflect the racial or ethnic makeup of their communities).

True to their name, exam schools use a variety of admissions requirements, though not always involving some sort of entrance assessment. To be sure, every exam school has its own individual admissions model that encompasses a combination of several factors such as prior academic records, state test results, and teacher recommendations. Once students are admitted to these schools, however, exams—state tests that measure both academic growth and achievement in particular—are not at the forefront of students’ academic experience.

This is the case because students at exam schools effortlessly score at proficient or advanced rates on state administered assessments, and these measures count for little where concerns relate to closing achievement differences among students. So instead, exam schools count advance placement tests taken and passed, or the number of seniors gaining admission to top colleges, as evidence of their success. Because of this, the biggest question that cannot be definitively answered, Finn and Hockett admit, is the extent to which the impressive outcomes of exam school students are a result of what happens inside the schools or are manifestations of a student’s already-present knowledge and skills.

A recent study challenges that very notion. Students who qualified for some of the nation’s most selective exam schools earned similar scores on state standardized achievement tests, PSAT and SAT, and Advanced Placement exams as students who just missed the entrance cutoff.  Exam schools, it seems, added little to no value to most of these students’ academic achievement.

Finn and Hockett argue, however, that these testing mechanisms may be a moot point:

Today’s scramble for entry into top-tier colleges plus the premium being placed on taking and passing AP exams plus standardized-test-based accountability pressures emanating from government do not add up to an optimal environment for academically selective high schools, whatever good such practices may do in other realms of K-12 education.

If state accountability assessments are not duly rigorous for all students, we must question the way we measure high school student achievement as a whole instead of challenging the existence of accountability systems. While Exam Schools exposes the obvious flaws, we must acknowledge the positive strides being made due to accountability systems, namely that educators can now use data to determine how much and how well students are learning and to trigger interventions for improvement. If we discount these steps forward, we’ll quickly lose ground for all students.

The conversation that Exam Schools should provoke is one around transformation—creating an education system that looks at both excellence and equity at the same time and for the betterment of all students.

Kaitlin Pennington is a Policy Analyst on the Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress and Cynthia G. Brown is Vice President for Education Policy at the Center.

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