Report: U.S. Needs More “Exam Schools”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 31st, 2012

If selective admissions high schools, such as New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, Boston Latin, and Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County, Virginia are “hothouses for incubating a disproportionate share of tomorrow’s leaders in science, technology, entrepreneurship, and other sectors that bear on society’s long-term prosperity and well-being,  say Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett in a report in Education Next.  “We’d be better off as a country if we had more of them.”

Such schools, the pair say are a “unique and little-understood sector of the education landscape.”  As a group, the schools are “more racially diverse than is widely believed.”  Most of such schools’ teachers belong to unions and are paid accordingly.  Not surprisingly, nearly all of the 165 selective schools identified and surveyed by Finn and Hockett offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses or the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.  “With rare exceptions (mainly in Louisiana), however, the schools are not charters,” they report.  “Although they’re ‘schools of choice,’ they are operated in more top-down fashion by districts, states, or sometimes universities rather than as freestanding and self-propelled institutions under their states’ charter laws.”

Yes, but are they any good?  By admitting high achieving students, exam schools are front loading high performance. Finn and Hockett are clear-eyed:  “Much like private schools, which are more apt to trade on their reputations and college-placement records than on hard evidence of what students learn in their classrooms, the schools on our list generally don’t know—in any rigorous, formal sense—how much their students learn or how much difference the school itself makes,” they write. “As one puzzled principal put it, ‘Do the kids do well because of us or in spite of us? We’re not sure.’”

The research base on selective schools’ performance is surprisingly thin (the report cites two studies).  Finn and Hockett note “the burden is shifting to the schools and their supporters to measure and make public whatever academic benefit they do bestow on their students versus what similar young people learn in other settings.”  But the “marketplace signals” are clear. “Far more youngsters want to attend these schools than they can accommodate,” the pair report.  Moreover, selective schools provide an essential and largely overlooked function:

“It’s evident from multiple studies that our K–12 education system overall is doing a mediocre job of serving its ‘gifted and talented’ youngsters and is paying too little attention to creating appealing and viable opportunities for advanced learning. What policymakers have seen as more urgent needs (for basic literacy, adequate teachers, sufficient skills to earn a living, for example) have generally prevailed. The argument for across-the-board talent development has been trumped by ‘closing the achievement gap’ and focusing on test scores at the low end.”

“A major push to strengthen the cultivation of future leaders is overdue, and any such push should include careful attention to the ‘whole school’ model,” conclude Finn and Hockett


  1. Yes, there should be more exam schools. The demand for them is overwhelming. Too many kids who want academic challenge–who really want it and can handle it–are being held back by kids who don’t.

    Put a bunch of interested, motivated kids in a class together, and what happens is amazing. Let more of it happen, and more kids will want in. Also, it’ll wake many students up. They’ll realize that skating by really isn’t all that rewarding.

    I’d like to see schools of this caliber with a humanities emphasis as well–schools that taught Latin, Greek, modern languages, literature, philosophy, history, arts, rhetoric, and declamation, in addition to math and sciences.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 31, 2012 @ 9:03 am

  2. I agree with you, Diana. In addition to creating more of them, I worry that we may not be creating the conditions necessary for greater number of students to take advantage of them. In the kinds of schools where you and I taught, I believe there is a tendency to view merely performing on grade level as sufficient. Thus few, if any, of our students reach the level where they are legitimate candidates for these schools. I think Finn and Hockett’s view of our policy priorities are inarguable. We need more of these schools and a concerted effort to put them within reach of more students–not by lowering the admissions standards, but nurturing academic talent from an early age.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 31, 2012 @ 9:11 am

  3. I would love to see more exam schools. I am sick of reading about using public education to level the playing field. By which the authors literally mean slowing the top performers down and starving their minds of content. Took a group of TAG middle schoolers to a water park this summer and that was the back seat conversation. Trying to slow them down so the on-level students could catch up.

    A complete waste of potential.

    One problem with exam schools is they skim the creme and the Common Core implementation in the classroom is largely collaborative, group work when it is not on the computer. A lot of the reports keep referring to the distributed intelligence concept within a classroom where the weaker students basically are thought to have a right to access the larger vocabulary, logical reasoning patterns, and greater stores of info of the brighter or just more enriched in life experiences students.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — July 31, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

  4. I attended Thomas Jefferson HS for Science and Technology (in Annandale, VA). In my opinion, TJ offered the following advantages: (1) All students were motivated and on-task in class; (2) Courses could be offered at higher-pacing and levels; and (3) No peer pressure to slack off or denigrate academics.

    In addition, I think that teachers at TJ were probably (on average) slightly better than teachers at other area high schools, likely b/c so many teachers wanted to work with such highly-motived, well-behaved students that the principal had a large pool of candidates from which to select his staff.

    I also think that average teachers did better at TJ than they would have done at other schools, simply because the students were so easy to teach: They all came to class, did their homework, took notes, and paid attention. There were NO discipline problems at TJ (other than occasional note-passing or the like). The only danger of teaching at TJ was that sometimes the students knew more than the teacher, which could be embarrassing if the teacher wasn’t fully prepared!

    However, I think that MOST of the academic success of the students at TJ was due to their own characteristics (intelligence, motivation, drive, family support, prior learning) that they brought with them to TJ. These students did well at their individual junior high schools and continued to do well in college and grad school. I probably learned more at TJ than I would have learned if I’d attended my base school, but I don’t think that TJ can be given all the credit for my high SAT’s or other academic accomplishments.

    Comment by Attorney DC — July 31, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

  5. Great post, Attorney DC. It’s a pretty common observation (I’ve made it myself) that in some cases, the students make the school look good (I’m looking at you, Harvard) but it doesn’t necessarily follow that such students are academically bulletproof and will thrive regardless of their environment. I worry that too many talented kids can never reach their full potential until or unless they get into a TJ-like environment and find themselves benefiting from proximity to others who are, as you said, intelligent, motivated, supported, etc. In short, it may be a lot easier to derail a promising career with a bad academic environment than to add value to it in a good one.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 31, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

  6. I also agree with Diana Senechal’s comment that it would be nice to see a humanities-based “exam school” — in Fairfax County, your only option was to apply to TJ or attend your base school. There wasn’t any TJ-like school with a focus on the arts or humanities, which I thought was unfortunate.

    Comment by Attorney DC — July 31, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

  7. Robert: You make good points. I especially agree with your final statement: “In short, it may be a lot easier to derail a promising career with a bad academic environment than to add value to it in a good one.”

    Having worked as a teacher with low-income student populations, I’ve seen how motivated students can suffer if they are placed in classes with students who are very disruptive, who are far below grade-level or who have difficult special education needs.

    In part, that’s why I support tracking — In order for students to realize their potential, I think that they need to be placed in classrooms with other students who are roughly at their level of interest and ability. Of course, I also support measures that enable schools to maintain order and discipline in ALL classes (low and high performing) so as to create the best available academic environment. Too many students lose out in their education because we allow disruptive students to hijack the educational process, in my opinion.

    Comment by Attorney DC — July 31, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

  8. Tracking of course is a dirty word and must not be uttered in polite company, lest it upset right thinking people. Let’s call it…er….ability grouping! But I am in broad agreement with you, Attorney. So would be just about anyone who has set foot in a school like the ones where you and I taught.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 31, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

  9. I thought I’d seen an NYC study that suggested that students who were admitted to exams school but chose not to go were as successful in college as those who had actually attended the exams schools… Suggesting that much of the exams schools success is the students they attract.

    That said, I think the importance of visible rewards for academic success are underestimated in motivating teens, and exams schools provide just that.

    Comment by Rachel — July 31, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

  10. Robert: Oops! You caught me using “tracking” again… Will I never learn??

    Comment by Attorney DC — August 1, 2012 @ 8:23 am

  11. I strongly believe that every large city should have at least one exam high school, as should each suburban county with a sufficient number of highly gifted students to support one. Furthermore, I believe there should be public boarding schools in all 50 states similar to the one in North Carolina available for highly gifted students living in rural areas. If boarding schools are simply too expensive, at least have an online high school similar to the private one Stanford runs but tuition-free.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — August 1, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

  12. I would also like to see more exam schools. However,I think that they will be of limited usefulness, especially for disadvantaged children, if there is no special programming before high school. If students are in homogeneous grouping
    K-6 or K-8 and then there is an opportunity to test for a gifted school, far to many children won’t have developed the background knowledge or math ability necessary, even if they had the potential. Then the school is made up of students that had a lot of parent support and pushing and a few students that are extremely gifted and able to overcome the shortcomings of the schools.

    This then leads to problems with public support, because the demographics of the school rarely matches that of the community at large.

    A lot of this could be solved by better instruction and more targeted instruction. There are many children that could handle more advanced instruction in elementary school. Sadly, they receive little instruction because other students need more help. Additionally, their learning is disrupted by other students misbehaving. In some cases they are the ones disrupting the class.

    Comment by Genevieve — August 2, 2012 @ 10:26 am

  13. Just so you know, the centerpiece of the Scandinavian / Finnish school reform was the abolition of tracking, which was one of the numerous measures enacted with the goal of establishing a more humane and equitable society. The results, serendipitously, led to higher PISA test scores.

    Comment by Harold — August 3, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

  14. Harold, I just don’t think Finland and the US is a valid comparison, in that regard. Their populaton is homogeneous and small; ours is the opposite.

    Genevieve; Agreed. The ES-MS curriculum is in critical need of overhaul; preferably in the direction of CK or classical, plus Singapore Math. The same goes for instruction, which needs to be direct and explicit (doubly so for disadvantaged kids). Those kids start out behind their advantaged peers, so schools can’t afford to waste time on discovery learning and groupwork, even if they were effective (and I don’t believe). For all schools,we need ES teachers with solid background in math, ELA (including phonics, grammar, composition-not Readers’/Writers’ Workshop)and the disciplines. That has to come from the college level, which has been focused on process to the near-exclusion of content for decades – particularly for el ed.

    We have to fix the pipeline to strong HS achievement at its beginning. Right now, ES doesn’t require really learning anything, so kids enter MS without the foundation they need for success. A parent comment on another website said that every kid who made the placement-test cut for algebra, from his son’s class, was tutored (parent, Kumon, private etc) – and they were bright kids from affluent leafy suburbs (in a school using Everyday Math). That’s unacceptable; the vast majority of such kids should be ready for early algebra, with many ready two years early. Without that kind of support, disadvantaged kids are doubly disadvantaged.

    Comment by momof4 — August 5, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  15. Finland, Sweden, etc. made a commitment to abolish (or at least alleviate) social inequity. A byproduct of this was higher test scores. (Of course mom of 4 thinks this is not feasible for the USA us because we have many black people). So instead we have to have tracking so that our minorities can fall further behind:
    For example in Sweden:
    “early 70 percent of Swedish workers belong to a trade union, making Sweden one of the most unionized countries in the world. For these millions of members, trade unions provide special insurance policies, coaching and representation for contract negotiations and legal support. From considering a contract to losing a job and becoming unemployed, unions can strengthen your bargaining position throughout your career through their legal expertise and negotiation privileges.

    Union organizations may help workers achieve fair and reasonable wages, ensure equal treatment, provide added pension and unemployment insurance and generally promote other social issues. The same rights also apply to those who are not members of a union. The Swedish labor market is built on a long heritage of negotiations between businesses, trade unions and the government, so all parties generally agree about the basic conditions. For employers, offering good working conditions is also a competitive advantage.

    About 1.7 million of the blue-collar workers in Sweden, those who perform work other than office work, belong to the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), an umbrella organization for 14 Swedish trade organizations in both the public and private sectors.

    There are also two large unions to which the majority of white-collar workers, office workers, in Sweden belong. The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) is the largest, with about 1.3 million members. It is also an umbrella organization, working at national and international levels on issues covering job satisfaction, development and opportunities, as well as other labor-related issues.

    The Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Saco) has approximately 600,000 union members who represent about two dozen independent groups, including economists, lawyers, architects, doctors, teachers and other professions that require a college or university degree.”

    Comment by Harold — August 6, 2012 @ 1:49 am

  16. @Harold one of the most difficult realities of being a citizen of the U.S. is that realization that we will never have the cultural trust that exists in Scandinavian countries. Consequence is that we won’t be able to benefit from more cohesive social welfare options like detracked education systems or extraordinary parental leave. Studies show that the more diverse a community, the lower the likelihood of social trust and given current cultural climate of this country the less likely it will happen in our lifetimes. Part of the appeal to me of the CK system is that it advocates creating a cultural norm that allows the building of cultural trust within a diverse community. We may have a chicken and egg problem here of what leads to what but this country has been here before when huge numbers of immigrants arrived at the turn of the century and education provided one of the platforms unifying many immigrants into a cohesive citizenship.

    Comment by DC Parent — August 6, 2012 @ 7:58 am

  17. DC parent,

    If we have too much “diversity” to ever ever benefit from social welfare programs (such as high quality preschool education and unionized jobs with benefits and regulated real estate and financial markets) which have succeeded in raising test scores elsewhere in the world, why wouldn’t such diversity also vitiate our ability to benefit from a core knowledge program?

    Perhaps you could clarify just what exactly you mean by diversity? Economic diversity? Black people? Just what are we talking about here? Do you see CK as eliminating diversity and thus getting us ready for the social welfare that said diversity now bars us from having?

    I would like to see some links to some of the studies of diversity which you speak.

    Comment by Harold — August 6, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

  18. cont.
    What I hear from these comments about “let’s not talk about Scandinavia” is that commenters on this board believe there are two mutually exclusive (according to the commenters) ways of improving education: 1) through social democracy and strong unions (but lalalalala lets not talk about that because: “diversity”) and 2) through CK. But never both.

    Comment by Harold — August 6, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

  19. Scandinavian schools arguably get good results because pupils spend an extra year in preschool laying the groundwork with vital preparation for academic studies. Formal academic instruction begins at age 7.

    According to a recent study reported today in an article in the Science newsfeed Eurekalert, social and behavioral skills, such as paying attention, following directions and completing a task may be even more crucial than academic abilities.

    The author of the study, Megan McClelland, who is a core director in OSU’s Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families, said interventions aimed at increasing young children’s self-control abilities have repeatedly shown to help boost “self-regulation,” or a child’s ability to listen, pay attention, follow through on a task and remember instructions.

    In a past study, McClelland found that simple, active classroom games such as Simon Says and Red Light/Green Light have been effective tools for increasing both literacy and self-regulation skills.

    “Academic ability carries you a long way, but these other skills are also important,” McClelland said. “Increasingly, we see that the ability to listen, pay attention, and complete important tasks is crucial for success later in life.”

    Comment by Harold — August 6, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

  20. More: Early Reading and Math Not Predictive of College Completion:

    Comment by Harold — August 7, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

  21. @Harold I think there are a lot of things this country needs to do, but lacks the social cohesion and trust to be able to implement. One of those things stoked by the political parties are social goods that work toward enabling those at the bottom- these include universal healthcare, high-quality child care and pre-school. These of course are issues on the right. On the left and right are the culture wars that demand their version of history be taught. So in Texas you have them marginalize Jefferson in favor of George Mason and on the Left some would argue a focus on what this country has done wrong. That is history but also the reading wars have been a social focus on what gets prioritized and whose story is told. These divides are in someways machinations of entrenched interests, but I think they gain traction because we don’t trust each other not to game the system. This issue of social trust shows up in different places but seems most accute in this country. Robert Putnam is currently the guy with the most prestige in the U.S. Studying it. Here is the NYT piece from 2007 on his research The downside of diversity

    Personally, I think a CK system is actually helpful because it creates a common story that people can build commonalities and trust. Also because power often rests on implied understandings a kid that has a stronger background in a common culture cannot be excluded so easily.

    Comment by DC Parent — August 7, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

  22. “These divides are in someways machinations of entrenched interests” — bingo! More than “in some ways” – I would say, in key ways. The entrenched interests own the media, including the text-book publishing business (their desire to hold on to and expand their monopoly/rents) is what this push/grab for so-called “reform” is all about). They also own the “high prestige” universities, most of congress, and have even succeeded in packing the courts. So this is not exactly “in some ways”. Though I would say that it has the flavor of desperation in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary of what they want us to believe.

    I agree with you about the CK being a force for cooperation and trust, by the way — though I think the requirements for k and first grade, should focus more on socialization and cooperation skills – which are equally important as academic content as ways of building trust.

    I think a comprehensive system (no tracking) is the only really ethical way — note, as far as I know Catholic, Quaker, and other religiously run schools have traditionally been run this way.

    Comment by Harold — August 8, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

  23. @Harold- all countries have entrenched power systems that attempt to preserve their power over the needs of the larger communication, even Sweden. This country seems to have a larger zero sum perspective than the Scandinavians. I would say you were right about Catholic and Quaker schools, but at least out here those schools serve the elite where I think differentiated education is not so difficult. The Catholic Church has shut down its network of schools in most urban districts and those that remain require you to be advanced an at least $15,000 and frankly a lot of smaller evangelical christian schools won’t teach basic concepts like evolution which disqualifies them in my book to be even teaching. I don’t know much about Quaker schools except that the two here in DC charge nearly $30,000 a year.

    I agree that equity is important, but differentiated classrooms are very difficult in areas with high degrees of stratification. I know there are those on this board who have mastered it and think it can be done, but I have yet to see it in 6 years my children have attended public schools in DC, even in the wealthier ward 3.

    Comment by DC Parent — August 9, 2012 @ 8:07 am

  24. Harold, it is one thing to track at the high school level, i.e. to offer different levels for a class, and quite another to track at the elementary school level.

    By virtue of having advanced placement and honors classes, all our high schools in effect track. I hope you are not arguing that offering AP and honors classes is unethical.

    The question is not whether tracking is good or not. Rather, it is whether all students are given a chance to attain the higher class level.

    For example: are schools offering tracked classes from the entry level of the discipline? That would not be right.

    Do students have no chance of taking that honors math class unless they get tutored at the Russian School or at Kumon, because the honors class program assumes things learned that the regular classes did not teach, e.g. learning long division or learning to write a simple mathematical proof? That is also a problem, and it is a reality in some of our schools, and here the problem lies not so much with the honors class but with the gaps in the preparatory classes.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — August 9, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

  25. What people are not getting here is that Scandinavian schools do “track” in high school — that is, they offer different curriculums. However, their “high schools” are like our community colleges. They begin in the equivalent of our eleventh grade and, although tuition free, are not mandatory.

    Comment by Harold — August 17, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

  26. does anyone know where the 3 exam schools in North Carolina are located? I can’t find a list of the exam schools in the U.S. anywhere??

    Comment by lois — September 20, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.