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'Exam Schools' Provoke Controversy

Public schools that admit students based largely on their performance on a two-and-a-half-hour assessment known as the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test are increasingly coming under fire for their lack of diversity ("The Cutthroat World of Elite Public Schools," The Atlantic, Dec. 3).  There are some 165 such schools in 31 states, with all but three of the states located in the eastern half of the country.

The situation in New York City is the most controversial to date because eight of the nine elite schools there base their admissions solely on the above-cited test.  (The ninth school, LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, admits students based on auditions or portfolio assessments.) Elite schools in Chicago also take into account students' socioeconomic backgrounds and grade-point averages.  Boston's three highly selective institutions look at applicants' grade-point averages as well as their test scores.  

So what's the problem? It's the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity.  For example, blacks constitute only seven percent and Hispanics only five percent of the student population at New York City's Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High School, and Brooklyn Technical High School. Thirty-seven percent of the students enrolled at Stuyvesant High School in New York City are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.  This compares with about three-quarters of students in New York City's other schools. 

I believe in the importance of diversity in public schools.  But these elite schools are not for all students any more than the SEALS are for all military personnel.  Attributing the admittedly small percentage of blacks and Hispanics in these schools to advantages that affluent white families give their children is not altogether accurate. Asians make up 60 percent of the student enrollment in New York City's elite schools, even though most of them come from low-income families. ("Nurture the gifted, don't resent them," New York Daily News, Oct. 15).

That's why I don't buy the argument that the small percentage of black and Hispanic students enrolled relative to their share of the general population "raises red flags about the fairness of the admissions system" ("Elite, Separate, Unequal," The New York Times, Jun. 22).  After all, Asians are a racial minority and many come from impoverished backgrounds, and yet they score high on the same test.

I agree that lackluster performance on a single exam can allow invalid inferences to be drawn about a student's overall academic ability.  That's why I'm open to taking into account grade-point averages as well.  But I don't think we do students of any race a service by admitting them merely to satisfy the goal of diversity.

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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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