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How Good Are Exam Schools?

At a time when seldom is heard an encouraging word about education in this country, exam schools stand out. These are public schools that are characterized by their highly selective admissions policies and their outstanding academic results ("Exam Schools from the Inside," Education Next, Fall 2012; "Young, Gifted and Neglected," The New York Times, Sep. 18).

I'm not calling into question the achievement of students in these schools. On the contrary, I salute their impressive performance. But at the same time, I have to ask how much of the success of the 165 exam schools that Chester E. Finn Jr. and Jessica A. Hockett identified is the result of what students bring to class rather than what they learn in class. I've long maintained that the effectiveness of teachers in traditional public schools is largely the result of the students they happen to inherit each year. For example, teachers who get a class of Talmudic scholars stand a much better chance of posting evidence of learning than teachers who get a class of future felons. (This is one reason why I'm skeptical about the value-added model.)

To date, only two studies have investigated exam schools. Both focused exclusively on students who were just barely over and under the entry cutoff scores. They found "little evidence of an achievement gain" for these marginal students. Being in a school with much more academically able peers and a more challenging curriculum did not result in better standardized test scores. But I'd like to know how well students did who were admitted with scores well above the cutoff. Most important, I wonder how much of their achievement was due to instruction. If innate intelligence is primarily responsible for their performance, then their teachers are receiving more credit than what they deserve. In other words, these students shine in spite of instruction rather than because of it.

That's an important distinction. When teachers in traditional public schools complain that they are being held accountable for factors beyond their control, such as the impoverished backgrounds of their students, they're accused of making excuses. Why should teachers in exam schools be given a free pass when the factor is the innate intelligence of their students? Isn't this also beyond their control? The double standard creates confusion in the minds of taxpayers at this crucial crossroads in educational history.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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