The Exam School Choice, II

Now, as winter makes a belated appearance in Boston, the majority of the children who are going to take the test to enter one of the exam schools in the Boston Public Schools in the fall of 2012 have done so. Now begins the long wait until the scores and school assignments go out in March or April. For some families, this decision is no big deal, but for others, the whole thing produces lots of anxiety.

A series of studies by academics from schools like MIT and Duke suggest that, at least for some families, maybe the anxiety is displaced. A recent article in the Boston Globe discusses the studies.

In general, these studies look at the kids who just make it in to the exam schools and those who just miss the cutoff. If the exam schools are really the cat’s meow of education, then there should be big differences in the educational achievement of these two groups of students (the “just got ins” and the “just missed its”). The studies find that the differences aren’t really that great. That is, the kids who don’t get into the exam schools do almost as well as the ones who go to the exam schools.

What do they mean by “do as well?” The biggest study uses scores on standardized tests (SAT, PSAT, Advanced Placement) to measure doing well. Other tests look at statistics on college admissions and graduation. All tell pretty much the same story. Going to an exam school is no big advantage for students who score high enough on the exam to get in, but aren’t among the higher scoring group.

These studies have many shortcomings. They only address the accomplishment of a slice of the students and don’t speak to the impact of the schools on the highest achievers. While there is less data around on this issue, everyone assumes that the schools do improve outcomes among those students. Also, they don’t measure all of the other benefits of going to an exam school like the social network of alumni and the extracurricular activities. This is definitely true, and the extracurricular offerings at BLS are particularly impressive. However, the Parent Imperfect can attest to the fact that students facing academic challenges at Boston Latin often find it very difficult to take advantage of extracurriculars.

Test scores may measure something other than academic achievement. As one BLS parent writes in the school’s parent list-serv, “as we all know, the way to get high scores on the SAT is to pay for one of the expensive test preparation courses.”

Perhaps most importantly, it is hard to know exactly what students the studies examine. Most of the students who just miss getting into Boston Latin go to another of the exam schools (Latin Academy or the O’Bryant). In that case, measuring the differences between students who just get into BLS and those who just miss the cutoff is measuring the differences among exam schools and not the value of the exam school experience. If the test is measuring the “achievement differences” between those students who just get into the O’Bryant and those who just miss the cutoff and don’t get into any exam school, then the conclusions apply to the O’Bryant, but not to all exam schools.

No doubt about it, measuring the test scores of the “just ins” vs. the “just misseds” is a weird way to judge the value of a school. These studies do, nonetheless, resonate strongly with one piece of the PI’s very unscientific perceptions of the situation at Boston Latin. The school is a positive experience for many of those students who respond to the high demands and special teaching styles that predominate at the school. For students who don’t meet that learning profile, the experience can be a decidedly mixed bag. The Globe article quotes a professional from the BPS making a striking statement about all of these studies:

Kamal Chavda, the Boston Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for research and evaluation, said that by narrowly focusing on students who just made the cut or just didn’t, a researcher misses the point: By and large, exam schools are built to serve the top students, those who score phenomenally well. The marginal students, in fact, can often feel challenged to keep up. “I’m encouraged to see that more of them aren’t getting frustrated and falling dramatically behind,” Chavda said of the results.

If it is real, it is quite a striking citation. We thought that public schools were “built” for the public. Whether students get in via an exam, a lottery or some other process, the school ought to strive for the success of all of its students. Mr. Chavda is not surprised that the exam schools don’t work that well for the “marginal” student. He is encouraged that more students at the lower end of achievement are not falling more dramatically behind at the exam schools. That seems like faint praise to us. This is just one person’s opinion, probably taken out of context, but it tells a truth about the exam schools that seems much more important than scores on the PSAT.

What does the truth of how the exam schools are built matter to all those families whose children have just taken the ISEE in hopes of getting into one? If your child turns out to be in that unknown percentage (1/3?) of the students at a school like BLS who struggle to keep up, then the school won’t likely be a great experience for him/her. More importantly, the school may not be “built” for your child. The current headmaster has seen to the establishment of many more support programs for those students than existed even 10 years ago. Those important programs–After School Tutoring, Saturday Success School, etc.–can throw students a lifeline, but can’t change the core culture that makes the compensatory programs so necessary.

In the small sample of BLS parents who have shared their stories with the PI, there are many who had big questions about sending their child there, but ultimately decided to do so based on the idea that being in a “high expectations” environment would lead their son or daughter to “rise to the occasion.” More soon about rising to the occasion…

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