Jay Mathews of the Washington Post published a column (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2010/11/top_high_school_should_look_fo.html) on Monday dealing with an issue I’ve been planning to address here: why don’t high schools with competitive admission have a more diverse student body?
Mathews covers Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which, like my high school, makes Newsweek’s list of schools that are too elite to be part of its list of the top 100 high schools in the United States. (See the list of those schools here: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/06/13/america-s-best-high-schools-in-a-different-class.html) Mathews points out that TJ (as it’s known by students) has a student body that is only 4% Hispanic and African-American despite the fact that those two groups make up one third of the population in the school district. Instead, the students are mostly White or Asian.
My high school is probably about the same, though I’ve never seen exact figures, and its student body is significantly smaller.
Both schools provide an excellent education to top-performing students who out-test and otherwise outshine hundreds of applicants to earn a spot in each entering class. When I applied to my high school at the end of the 90’s, the admissions process included the usual paper application plus an essay, two recommendations, and a day of standardized testing that included four tests and another writing sample. The process is rigorous enough that even though I hung out with the top achievers in my class, many of their siblings did not make it through to follow in their footsteps.
Testing is inherently going to set some up for success and others up for failure; I absolutely believe that some people have the gift of being good test takers (and unfortunately I am not one of those people). The tests for my school assessed both reasoning skills (a more objective measure of academic potential) and content knowledge (which is obviously biased against those who might be coming from less rigorous backgrounds). When I think about my students (coming from a background of horrible schools) in a similar situation, I can’t help but expect underperformance relative to someone like me who had the privilege of attending strong elementary and middle schools. It’s not that I don’t think students like mine have the brains or dedication to succeed – they do – but the admissions process just isn’t in their favor.
On the other hand, what are other ways to assess students’ readiness for the extraordinarily high standards and rigorous academics of these kinds of schools? It’s important to recognize that one reason these schools exist is to provide this kind of hybrid high school-college experience that exceptional students would not otherwise have. The standards for admission do have to be pretty rigorous if you want to bring in students who can, if you’ll forgive the pun, make the grade. If you happen to live in an area where there are plenty of good, regular high schools, it’s really not that big a deal if you don’t get into a magnet school – you can still get an education, distinguish yourself, and go to a good college (after all, even though 30 people from my graduating class of 125 went to my Public Ivy, we only accounted for a tiny fraction of the entering class of 1300, plenty of whom went to regular public high schools!). The point is, exclusion is a necessary part of maintaining elite public schools like TJ, and relegating a certain percentage of the applicants to regular public schools doesn’t mean that you’ve ruined their academic futures.
(I’ll write in the future about the role of magnet schools in high-performing school systems vs. low-performing systems. Maybe some of you are thinking that we shouldn’t have them at all!)
So then, what SHOULD we use to determine admissions to elite public high schools? I hate testing, but I do think a test of some sort makes sense – particularly if you are trying to boost diversity, it might be useful to know before the students arrive what are their strong and weak areas so that you can tailor instruction accordingly. I’m also a big believer in letters of recommendation – who better to comment on a student’s work ethic and talents than a teacher? Schools should aim to get the most complete picture possible of each applicant, and they should measure them against the stated focus and goals of the school. (For instance, many schools like TJ and my own specialize in one or two content areas. Kids often end up going to a school just because it’s elite even though they might not have an interest or particular talent in the area(s) of focus.) And, most of all, I think schools should conduct interviews. People can demonstrate in person the traits that may not show up as clearly on paper, like dedication.
Most important in this discussion: schools should not be considered “elite” unless they are diverse. We all have so much to learn from people of different backgrounds, whether you determine that diversity based on ethnicity, socio-economic status, religion, native language, sexuality, political views, or anything else. Schools should aim to put together a group of students who not only have what it takes to succeed but can also teach their classmates just as much as their teachers will.