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Exam Schools

Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools

Chester E. Finn
Jessica A. Hockett
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Exam Schools
    Book Description:

    What is the best education for exceptionally able and high-achieving youngsters? Can the United States strengthen its future intellectual leadership, economic vitality, and scientific prowess without sacrificing equal opportunity? There are no easy answers but, as Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett show, for more than 100,000 students each year, the solution is to enroll in an academically selective public high school.Exam Schoolsis the first-ever close-up look at this small, sometimes controversial, yet crucial segment of American public education. This groundbreaking book discusses how these schools work--and their critical role in nurturing the country's brightest students.

    The 165 schools identified by Finn and Hockett are located in thirty states, plus the District of Columbia. While some are world renowned, such as Boston Latin and Bronx Science, others are known only in their own communities. The authors survey the schools on issues ranging from admissions and student diversity to teacher selection. They probe sources of political support, curriculum, instructional styles, educational effectiveness, and institutional autonomy. Some of their findings are surprising: Los Angeles, for example, has no "exam schools" while New York City has dozens. Asian-American students are overrepresented--but so are African-American pupils. Culminating with in-depth profiles of eleven exam schools and thoughtful reflection on policy implications, Finn and Hockett ultimately consider whether the country would be better off with more such schools.

    At a time of keen attention to the faltering education system,Exam Schoolssheds positive light on a group of schools that could well provide a transformative roadmap for many of America's children.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4457-9
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Selective public high schools that serve motivated kids and high achievers, many of them also very smart, have been a tiny but important part of the U.S. secondary-education landscape for generations. Some are world famous and boast celebrated alumni/ae. Others may be virtually unknown beyond their immediate communities, but there they often play distinctive and highly valued roles.

    Yet nowhere can one learn much about this galaxy within the American secondary-schooling universe. There’s no orderly list of these schools, nor any trade association to which they all belong—and that hires lobbyists and publicists to advance their interests. Many have...

  4. Part I: The Big Picture

    • Chapter 1 History and Context
      (pp. 7-21)

      The main trajectory of American schooling over the past century has been the gradual widening of access and raising of educational expectations for ever-larger portions of the nation’s youthful population.

      Though elementary schooling was nearly universal by 1910, just 13.5 percent of that year’s adult population (twenty-five and older) had graduated from high school. Fifty years later, the corresponding figure was 41.1 percent. Today, about 87 percent tell the Census Bureau that they are high school graduates.¹

      This striking expansion of secondary schooling in the United States was driven by a quartet of forces, beginning with the human capital demands...

    • Chapter 2 Searching for Needles in the High School Haystack
      (pp. 22-27)

      Defining a previously unexamined category of schools and identifying its members make for no small challenge. We began by thinking of them as elite institutions that require applicants to earn high scores on stiff entrance tests designed specifically for these schools. Some do, in fact, fit that description—and most incorporate exam results of various kinds in their admission process. But applying that filter alone would have excluded many other schools that seek to find, select, and serve high-performing, high-potential, and highly motivated students in self-contained (i.e., “whole-school”) settings. And it would have included some schools that, on closer scrutiny...

    • Chapter 3 Exploring a New Constellation
      (pp. 28-56)

      Although some schools on our list are nationally renowned and many are locally famous, these schools as a group or type within U.S. education have rarely been examined or analyzed. Hence little is known about their demographics, their teachers, their education programs, their selection processes, et cetera. Here we explore this unfamiliar constellation within the vast universe of American secondary education.

      To obtain basic information about student demographics, we drew data from the federal government’s 2009–10 Common Core database for the schools on our list and compared them with all U.S. public high schools (table 3.1). The results both...

  5. Part II: Inside the Schools

    • Introduction
      (pp. 59-60)

      While identifying and surveying academically selective public high schools gave us a bird’s-eye view of this distinctive corner of the secondary-education world, we were left with questions that could only be addressed by going inside the schools themselves. So we resolved to visit up to a dozen of them. Our plan was to spend time in schools of varying kinds in different parts of the country.

      To select them, we reviewed the list of those that had responded to our survey, assuming that administrators who had taken thirty to sixty minutes to share information about their school might be more...

    • Chapter 4 Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy Aurora, IL
      (pp. 61-70)

      Carl Sagan called the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) “a gift from the people of Illinois to the human future.” Reflecting this challenge, IMSA is more than a public boarding high school for 650 talented 10th–12th graders from across the Prairie State: it’s a research institution, professional-development provider, outreach facilitator, and, according to its self-confident mission statement, “the world’s leading teaching and learning laboratory for imagination and inquiry.”

      Situated in the Fox River Valley, thirty-five miles west of Chicago and not far from several national science laboratories, IMSA is technically a state agency that operates independently from the...

    • Chapter 5 School Without Walls Washington, D.C.
      (pp. 71-78)

      Founded in 1971, School Without Walls Senior High School (SWW) gradually evolved from a small (fifty-pupil) “alternative” school designed for District of Columbia pupils who didn’t fare well in conventional schools into a larger, highly selective, and academically rigorous college-prep high school for bright, motivated youngsters. In its fortieth year when we visited, it is now one of three academically selective public high schools in D.C.¹

      Adjoining the campus of George Washington University (GW) in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, SWW spent decades in a decrepit and leaky, albeit historic, school building. (Student tour guides love to point out a quote...

    • Chapter 6 Central High School Magnet Career Academy Louisville, KY
      (pp. 79-87)

      When Central High School Magnet Career Academy’s current building was completed in 1952, at the corner of Chestnut and 12th streets in the West End of downtown Louisville, its facilities were “unsurpassed in the city’s schools.”¹ As the neighborhood around the school became increasingly crime-ridden and marked by a combination of housing projects and vacant buildings, one might predict that the school would fall prey to its surroundings. But the yellow-tinged brick building with midcentury-modern touches is more or less “preserved” in something very close to its original state.

      A historically black school founded more than 130 years ago, Central...

    • Chapter 7 Liberal Arts and Science Academy Austin, TX
      (pp. 88-95)

      Although its origins date to 1985, Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy, known to all as LASA, has been a full-fledged high school only since 2007.

      It began as a magnet program with a math, science, and technology focus back when the Austin Independent School District (AISD) was getting serious about desegregation. Those in charge at the time judged that situating a rigorous, academically selective magnet within the Lyndon B. Johnson High School—in a then-mostly Black neighborhood on the lower-income “east of I-35” side of town—would draw white students to the school and boost its overall performance while...

    • Chapter 8 Jones College Prep Chicago, IL
      (pp. 96-105)

      Over the past fifteen years, the commercial and residential growth of Chicago’s South Loop has transformed the area into a desirable place to shop and live. In that same time, a high school on the corner of South State Street was also transformed—from Jones Metropolitan High School of Business and Commerce into Jones College Prep, a high-performing selective-enrollment school with a mission to “help students develop themselves as leaders through a rigorous college prep program that focuses on educating the whole person.” Lesser known than some of its Chicago Public Schools (CPS) peers (e.g., Whitney Young, Northside College Prep,...

    • Chapter 9 Benjamin Franklin High School New Orleans, LA
      (pp. 106-113)

      Located on the campus of the University of New Orleans, on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, the Benjamin Franklin High School (BFHS) has three notable distinctions: It’s the highest-achieving public high school in all of Louisiana. It’s a strong contender for, and likely winner of, the title of “most integrated public high school in New Orleans.” (There’s really only one rival.) And it’s one of the country’s very few academically selectivecharterschools.

      But it wasn’t always a charter. Before Hurricane Katrina hit the Crescent City in 2005, Ben Franklin was a selective academic magnet within the Orleans Parish school...

    • Chapter 10 Townsend Harris High School Queens, NY
      (pp. 114-121)

      Townsend Harris High School (THHS)—which caused a stir in 2010 when theNew York Postrated it number 1 citywide, ahead of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and the rest of the city’s venerated public schools—re-emerged in 1984 from the ashes of what was for decades Gotham’s most selective high school, albeit only for boys. The original institution, known as Townsend Harris Hall and shut down by Mayor Fiorello La-Guardia in 1942, traced its origins back to 1848. Its history was bound up with that of the City College of New York, and it boasted many distinguished alumni (multiple Nobel...

    • Chapter 11 Pine View School for the Gifted Osprey, FL
      (pp. 122-130)

      Talk with anyone at Pine View School for the Gifted in Osprey, Florida, and within five minutes he or she is sure to mention what a “special” and “different” place it is. Described by one community member as “the cheapest private school parents in Sarasota County can get,” Pine View is a public school of 2,170 students¹ with several distinguishing characteristics. For one, it’s the only school on our list to span grades 2–12. Principal Steve Largo, now in his twenty-fourth year as the school’s lead administrator, believes the range of grade levels is a “huge plus” that contributes...

    • Chapter 12 Oxford Academy Cypress, CA
      (pp. 131-139)

      Serving over 1,100 students in grades 7–12—and often mistaken for a private school by people in the area—Oxford Academy in Cypress, California (pop. 47,800), is one of twenty-two schools in the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD). Located on the more affluent west side of the thirty-five-square-mile district in Orange County, the academy occupies a campus of nine small buildings built in 1966 within striking distance of Cypress High School, a comprehensive high school in the same district.

      In recent years, Oxford has enjoyed high rankings on lists of top high schools inU.S. News, Newsweekand...

    • Chapter 13 Bergen County Academies Hackensack, NJ
      (pp. 140-148)

      It isn’t easy to wrap one’s mind around the Bergen County Academies, where this unusual school came from, and how it operates. But the effort pays off. For it’s one of the best secondary schools in New Jersey, and its distinctive (if somewhat cumbersome) structure is worth understanding. It may also be the oddest “vocational school” in America.

      Bergen County Academies (BCA) is a single public magnet high school, located in Hackensack, a smallish (43,000 people) city within the densely populated northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City. But the school houses seven semidistinct “academies” and serves all of...

    • Chapter 14 Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Annandale, VA
      (pp. 149-158)

      Few people associated with TJ, as the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology is known throughout the metro Washington area and much of the education world, have come down from the thrill of being designated byU.S. Newsas America’s best high school. That first happened in 2007 but is an ongoing pleasure, as TJ’s top ranking continues in the magazine’s annual rankings.¹

      Operated by the sprawling Fairfax County Public Schools system (FCPS), the nation’s eleventh-largest district, which educates some 175,000 youngsters across a sizable—and mostly prosperous—chunk of Washington’s northern-Virginia suburbs, TJ also serves smaller numbers of...

    • Chapter 15 Similarities and Differences
      (pp. 159-166)

      Judging from our eleven site visits, there’s no such thing as “the” academically selective American public high school. Each of them is distinctive—but they have important likenesses, too.

      Certainly their varied histories and current demographics challenge allegations that these are bastions of privilege or tools of social stratification and racial segregation. Only five of them (Pine View, Ben Franklin, IMSA, Townsend Harris, and TJ) were even designed at the outset to serve a selected group of highly talented students. The other six began for different reasons and became academically focused and selective, gradually or quickly, in response to political...

  6. Part III: Summing Up

    • Chapter 16 Dilemmas and Challenges
      (pp. 169-187)

      Seeing a subset of these schools close up, observing them in action, and talking with those most involved with them deepened our understanding of what makes them tick and the roles they play in their communities. But these visits and conversations also highlighted some perplexing issues that the schools embody and that bear on American education more generally. In this chapter we reflect on several of the knottiest of these.

      Americans have generally come to accept the principle and practice of students and parents choosing schools. But public schools that select their pupils raise eyebrows in a country that has...

    • Chapter 17 Conclusions
      (pp. 188-202)

      Should America have more or fewer academically selective high schools, or do we have about the right number today? Would it be a good thing if additional communities and states had such schools and more young people attended them? As noted above, the schools on our list comprise fewer than one percent of all U.S. public high schools—and their students about the same.

      Does that make them simply an eccentric corner of American secondary education that some places like and others shun, or are they a distinctively valuable element of the country’s K–12 policies and practices that should...

  7. Appendix I: Selection Process and School List
    (pp. 203-215)
  8. Appendix II: Survey Questions
    (pp. 216-228)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 229-248)
  10. Index
    (pp. 249-255)