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Diversifying 'Exam Schools'

The pride of large urban school districts are their exam schools, which enroll students on test scores.  Despite their well deserved academic reputation, they remain relatively devoid of black and Hispanic students ("Elite public schools that rely on entry exams fail the diversity test," The Conversation, Jun. 26).  The question is how to alter this pattern without harming excellence.

The latest proposal is to place greater emphasis on "ethical engagement," which means looking for evidence of service to others and commitment to the common good, and less emphasis on test scores alone.  The hope is that if top-tier colleges and universities consider ethical engagement, then exam schools will follow suit in whom they admit.

I agree that diversity is a worthy goal at all levels of education.  But I seriously question if ethical engagement means that students can handle rigorous academic work.  It takes a certain IQ and aptitude to succeed in these schools.  How do we help students of any ethnicity or race by admitting them when they lack the academic wherewithal?  The usual response will be "grit."  I don't doubt that it is an important factor in success in any undertaking.  But no amount of grit is going to substitute for IQ and aptitude.

If I'm correct, then what will unavoidably happen is that students admitted to exam schools when they fall below the cut score will struggle and drop out. The other possibility is that these schools will water down their standards in order to maintain their graduation rate.  In either case, all students will be shortchanged.

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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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