Are Selective High Schools Evil?

by Carol Kocivar | February 28, 2021 | 2 Comments
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The end of exam schools?

Throughout the nation, selective admission policies at public schools are being questioned as the country looks closely at diversity and equity. In California, San Francisco’s Lowell High School is the poster child for the debate over exam schools. The Board of Education, in a sudden and controversial decision, voted to eliminate the selective admissions policy for its iconic high school.

Unless the decision is reversed, the school will be merged into the district's lottery-based assignment system, making it, in effect, just another school.

Is selectivity always an affront to equity?

The board’s decision reflects long-simmering disagreements about the role of a public school system, including this: is it an affront to equity for a school system to have selective schools at all? Is selectivity by its nature inconsistent with public education, at least prior to college?

These are not new questions. I lived through this debate as chair of the committee that dramatically revised the selective admission policy at Lowell High School 25 years ago. The question of selectiveness in public schools has picked up new urgency, not only in San Francisco but in other cities with public exam schools, including Boston and New York, where sharp disagreements over selective admission policies have become national news.

What is an exam school?

Selective schools with a strong focus on academics are sometimes called exam schools, but tests are usually not the only basis for admission. Selective schools serve students who are unusually gifted or driven to excel in a variety of dimensions including academic rigor, arts, and STEAM. To identify high-achieving students, selective high schools use a variety of admission criteria, typically including a mix of test scores, grades, recommendations, and auditions.

About 7% of California’s high school students attend one of the state’s 800 private high schools, which are selective by nature — students must apply to get in. Selective public high schools, by contrast, are very rare. In 2012 the only major study of these schools identified just 165 of them in America, most of them on the east coast.

Unsurprisingly, selective public high schools tend to produce some noteworthy achievements. Lowell High is one of the highest-performing public high schools in California, and it has been recognized four times as a National Blue Ribbon School, eight times as a California Distinguished School, and one time as a Gold Ribbon School.

Are selective schools good or bad?

In this emotion-charged debate, people both for and against selective schools claim the moral high ground.

Arguments for selective schools

Arguments against selective schools

This is really about equity.
We need to meet the unique needs of all students, including high-achieving students. A selective school can provide the instruction and challenging curriculum these students need in an environment that supports them.

This is really about equity.
The low numbers of Black, Latino and low income students in selective schools reflects discrimination. Selective schools perpetuate institutional racism. Black vs. White. Rich vs. Poor. Elite vs. Inclusive. Gifted or advantaged students don’t need their own schools.

Everyone says “Equity is on my side”

Critics of exam schools argue that public schools ought to reflect the economic and ethnic diversity of communities where they are located. Many selective schools in urban areas reflect the historic correlation of poverty and academic results. Students from low income families are less likely to qualify for selective schools. Students who qualify are more likely to be white or Asian, and less likely to be Latino or Black.

Research about selective high schools

A body of research about America’s exam schools was compiled in 2012 by Chester E. Finn Jr., author of Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools. The findings tested some important assumptions about these schools, some of which turned out to be myths or misunderstandings. He summarized the conclusions in an op-ed for the New York Times, “Young, Gifted and Neglected.”

“Critics call them elitist, but we found the opposite... While exam schools in some cities don’t come close to reflecting the demographics around them, across the country the low-income enrollment in these schools parallels the high school population as a whole. African-American youngsters are ‘overrepresented’ in them and Asian-Americans staggeringly so (21 percent versus 5 percent in high schools overall). Latinos are underrepresented, but so are whites.”

“…It’s time to end the bias against gifted and talented education and quit assuming that every school must be all things to all students, a simplistic formula that ends up neglecting all sorts of girls and boys, many of them poor and minority, who would benefit more from specialized public schools. America should have a thousand or more high schools for able students, not 165, and elementary and middle schools that spot and prepare their future pupils.”

Poverty is an enemy of learning. It is true that in general the families of students that qualify for selective schools tend to be less poor than those at other schools. Still, in urban areas a large percentage of the students at selective schools tend to come from low income families.

Examples of Selective Schools and percentage of low income students

Stuyvesant High School, New York City



Thomas Jefferson High School, Virginia



Payton College Prep,




Lowell High School, San Francisco



Many suburban schools have far less economic diversity than selective schools. As Finn puts it, urban selective schools provide low income students the opportunity to attend a high-achieving high school “without having to buy a house in the suburbs.”

Are advanced high school classes diverse?

Who is underrepresented in urban selective public high schools? It’s primarily low income and non-Asian students of color. This pattern isn’t just a school-level thing unique to exam schools — it shows up at the classroom level, too. According to the National Center for Education Statistics:

“The percentage of high school students earning any Advanced Placement/ International Baccalaureate credits was higher for Asian students (72 percent) than for White students (40 percent), and the percentages for Asian and White students were higher than the percentages for students in all other racial/ethnic groups.”

Selective high schools emphasize advanced courses as part of their mission, and they hire faculty members with the necessary skills to teach them. Online solutions like UC Scout provide smaller high schools with a way to offer advanced courses for which they lack qualified faculty.

Testing as a filter for admission

A significant undercurrent in this debate is the use of tests to determine admission. Opponents of testing say they are unreliable and don’t test real ability. According to historian Diane Ravitch, “Sometimes, the most brilliant and intelligent minds do not shine in standardized tests because they do not have standardized minds." Higher income families are more likely to provide their children with academic support, including test preparation.

Proponents of testing say that tests provide a clear and consistent way of indicating whether students have mastered basic knowledge.

Natalie Wexler, author of Will Getting Rid Of Admissions Tests Make Selective Schools More Equitable? argues that “The impulse is understandable, but getting rid of admissions tests — or the phrase achievement gap — won’t address the underlying problem any more than getting rid of tests for Covid-19 will eradicate the disease”.

Pressure to change admission criteria

Some selective schools have expanded their entrance criteria specifically to provide opportunities for lower income students. Here is a short list of communities experiencing controversies similar to those in San Francisco.

Examples of selective high schools in America, and their admission requirements

Stuyvesant High School, New York City

One test for high school

New York State Education Law makes a written examination the only requirement for admission to its selective schools. Stuyvesant and seven specialized high schools serve the needs of academically gifted students. In response to public pressure, exams have been eliminated for middle schools.

Thomas Jefferson High School, Virginia

No test. Grades and courses

The Fairfax County school board voted to eliminate the standardized admission test for the school along with its $100 application fee. The board then raised the minimum grade-point average and the course requirements (honors) for admission.

Boston Public Schools, Massachusetts

Grades, zip code, income

Seats are offered based on grade point averages and test scores. Twenty percent will be reserved for the top-ranking students by GPA citywide. The remaining 80 percent of invitations will be distributed based on GPA and a student’s zip code. Each zip code will be allocated a number of seats that is proportionate to how many school-age children live there. Students from zip codes with the lowest median income will be given first pick of the school they want to attend. Boston has suspended enrollment to a selective program for high-performing fourth, fifth and sixth graders

Chicago Public Schools

Grades, economic tiers by zip code

Chicago uses a socio-economic tier system for all of its selective schools. Thirty percent of seats are allocated to students with the highest academic performance citywide, regardless of their socio-economic status. The remaining seventy percent are allocated to each of four socio-economic tiers, with each tier receiving 17.5%. Students compete for this portion based on their academic performance in comparison with other students in their tier.

Lowell High School

San Francisco

Grades, tests, recommendations

There are three different bands for admission into Lowell High School. Approximately 70% of admissions are based on highest grades and state test scores. The remaining 30% are adjusted to ensure socio-economic diversity in the school. Under-represented schools also provide student recommendations.There is also an additional evaluation of students requiring special education services.

Discussion prompts for an emotional issue

Here are some questions to consider when discussing whether to change a selective admission school.

  • Will getting rid of selective schools raise the achievement of low income students and students of color?
  • Will high-achieving students at a non-selective school have as many academic opportunities as those at a selective school?
  • Should a selective school be eliminated because the school district fails to prepare low income and students of color to qualify for it?

What would you do?




Get rid of special entrance exams and use grades and state assessments.

Automatically enter all students in the applicant pool to give everyone a chance.

Set aside a percentage of seats to take into account the opportunity gap.

Use geographic diversity and low income as criteria.

Provide summer and other support programs for low income students.

Provide greater support in elementary and middle school.

Create more selective schools instead of leaving out talented low income students and students of color.

Get rid of selective schools.

Please share your thoughts.

Questions & Comments

To comment or reply, please sign in .

user avatar
Aileen Brady April 23, 2021 at 2:30 pm
(1/3) A couple of things that have been sorely lacking in every article I've read regarding the modification of entrance requirements for so-called "academic" high schools:

* allowing students who meet criteria to attend these academic high schools based solely upon their Race/Ethnicity and the income level(s) of the students' households/parent(s) are setting those students whom they were trying to help in the first place up for failure,

* furthermore, the overall success of students in the schools will inevitably begin dropping because the students whom they allowed to attend based upon anything other than academic merit may not be adequately prepared to keep up with the rigorous instruction/standards of academic high schools; thus, the quality of the schools will suffer, so those schools might as well be any other school within the district and no longer classified as an "academic" high school.
user avatar
jandsmcclain March 1, 2021 at 11:45 am
Your chart shows the percentage of ethnic groups receiving AP and IB, but it does not show the percentages of total student population of those races in the areas researched. There should be something to show that Asians make up 70% of placement, yet only 30% total high school population (just an example... I don’t know actual percentage). That would give a better example of the possibility of discrimination. To answer the questions above:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 1, 2021 at 4:18 pm
Thanks for the question: National Center for Education Statistics Report, which is linked in the blog gives data on K-12 that is helpful: Look at Indicator 6. Elementary and Secondary Enrollment Overall, it shows Asians as a small minority: 4 to 5 per cent nationally. About 10 per cent in California. See Ed100 Lesson 2.1
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