What Exam Schools Can’t Do”

Boston Globe; October 29, 2011

In Boston, as in many American cities, the top pub­lic school is an exam school. Acceptance into one of the three elite out­fits here — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — assumes a dif­fer­ent life tra­jec­to­ry for the tal­ent­ed mid­dle school­er. An exam school edu­ca­tion, the think­ing goes, offers a more mean­ing­ful, rig­or­ous edu­ca­tion, open­ing the doors of elite uni­ver­si­ties and reward­ing careers there­after. Miss the cut­off for an exam school, and the fear is that you miss out on the life it promis­es.  Such fear, how­ev­er, appears to be mis­placed. Two provoca­tive new stud­ies — the first to attempt to iso­late the real effects of exam schools on their stu­dents — con­clude that an exam school edu­ca­tion in Boston or New York isn’t any bet­ter than the edu­ca­tion that oth­er pub­lic schools offer, espe­cial­ly for the kids most wor­ried about get­ting in, whose scores hov­er near the admit­tance thresh­old. Those kids, one study found, end up per­form­ing about the same on their SATs whether they get into an exam school or not. And after high school, accord­ing to a study of exam schools in New York, exam-school stu­dents enroll and grad­u­ate from more or less the same uni­ver­si­ties as com­pa­ra­ble stu­dents grad­u­at­ing from oth­er pub­lic high schools.  “Getting an exam-school edu­ca­tion is no bet­ter than an alter­na­tive,” said Josh Angrist, a pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at MIT and coau­thor of one of the stud­ies, “The Elite Illusion: Achievement Effects at Boston and New York Exam Schools,” pub­lished this sum­mer by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Neither Boston nor New York exam schools seem to boost achieve­ment,” Angrist said.”


By Paul Kix