New Research: Student reflections on selective entry high schools

Though it might go unnoticed in the hailstorm of coronavirus, election, etc news, the pandemic has caused cities to reconsider a bastion of racial segregation: gated entry for so-called “elite” public K-12 schools. 

Boston, for example, has three “exam” (or, I prefer, “restrictive enrollment”) schools, which determine entry based on student GPA and scores on a privately-administered exam. As is true in many cities, enrollment at these schools – especially Boston Latin School – is disproportionately whiter than the district population. 

Amid questions about how to safely administer a test during the pandemic, Boston’s school committee voted in October to suspend the use of an entrance exam for the current school year. This was the first change in decades. Under the traditional system, the district assigned seats based on a citywide competition that pitted students from wealthy families against those with less means for things like private tutors and test-prep classes. Instead, for just this year, the city will rely on GPA to rank students, and, perhaps the most important change: students will mostly compete against others in their zip code. That latter point, especially, is a step towards equity that no one could have anticipated at this time last year and, as depicted in the photo here, it attracted the predictable protest. (For more details on Boston’s plan, check out the district’s FAQ page.)

Protests against changes to admission policies at Boston “exam” schools. Source: Boston Herald

Importantly, Boston isn’t the only city to reconsider restricted enrollment policies. This article, written by a grad of NYC specialized high schools, lists other cities that are considering similar changes. Any day now, NYC’s mayor and schools chancellor are expected to make an announcement about admission to the city’s notoriously segregated specialized high schools. Meanwhile, San Francisco’s Lowell High School recently replaced its test with a lottery, reserving seats for students in low-income census tracts. And, Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia suspended its test and is considering a merit-based lottery.

With wider recognition of the limits of standardized testing, wider attention to anti-racist policy and the difficulty of safely testing during a raging pandemic, there’s certainly momentum for these relatively smaller changes to lead to bigger ones and/or to expand to other cities. For changes to have real impact, they should be richly informed by students’ experiences, especially the students of color who make it into these restricted spaces, who experience the racial aggression that comes when white supremacy is challenged, whose voice can lead us to something better. 

Along those lines, I had the opportunity to host a Boston Latin School senior for a research fellowship last summer. We interviewed students at her school, as well as teachers, administrators and racial justice activists, and we used their feedback to develop recommendations for more inclusive policy on “exam” school admissions and culture. I spoke about our project along with over 150 people who testified at the marathon Boston school committee meeting before the official vote. We also presented it to the Boston City Council (full PPT here), and Zoe (the student) wrote this fantastic blog post about it.

That’s what brings me to the specific focus of this post. I met Kate Phillippo through that project. She’s a professor at Loyola University of Chicago’s School of Education who wrote the 2019 book “A Contest without Winners” about how students make sense of the admissions process at Chicago’s selective enrollment high schools. She just came out with a timely piece that builds on the research for her book. As she describes below, Kate and colleagues looked at how students of color in specialized schools see themselves and understand educational inequity in general. 

Their findings align with something that I found surprising when talking with students in Boston: student adherence to/belief in meritocracy. In a recent piece about a different topic, Clint Smith offers an explanation that applies here as well:

“critical pedagogy helped me appreciate that, even as students are engaged in the process of learning, they are also engaged in the project of unlearning… And it is in that unlearning that agency can be reclaimed.”

It’s the early stages of a Freirian awakening of critical consciousness evident, in this case, in student experiences of restrictive enrollment schools. And, it has big implications for building a better policy and, perhaps more importantly, for the way that students of color understand their own excellence. 

“Youth in the Trenches of Competitive School Choice Policy” by Kate Phillippo, Briellen Griffin, B. Jacob Del Dotto, Crystal Lennix, & Ha Tran, The Urban Review

While policy makers, civic leaders, educators and parents debate about what equitable educational opportunities really are, students sort it out in the trenches. They learn about equitable educational opportunities, and develop opinions about what they should be, living their lives at school each day. “Samuél,” one of 36 Chicago students my team interviewed about the competitive high school choice process in Chicago, decided that equity happens when students are rewarded for high grades and test scores. He described highly selective public schools like “Osborne,” the school that rejected him, as able to “choose the people who deserve to get in and not just let anyone in.” When Osborne admitted Samuél’s friend, it felt fair to him. “She is smarter than me, put more effort in, I think she really deserves it more than I do.” 

Samuél’s words illustrate the key finding of my team’s recently released article in The Urban Review. We found that youth who competed to access high performing schools under school choice policy felt that individual merit—as measured by grades and test scores—was the best yardstick to determine who should access highly demanded schools. Ironically, though, it wasn’t really merit that got many students into their preferred schools. Affluent students used their family’s resources—such as access to high performing schools, money to pay private tutors and audition coaches—to boost their grades and test scores. Looking like they possessed more “merit,” these affluent youth got admitted to their preferred high schools at higher rates. They also saw themselves—and were seen by others including the students they aced out like Samuél—as rightly deserving their outsized educational opportunities.

Competitive school choice policy happens when applications are open to a wide range of students, but relatively few are selected for highly demanded schools. Large cities including Philadelphia, Houston, San Francisco, Boston, Louisville, Baltimore and New York City use a similar process for some or all of their high schools. In these schools, Black and Latinx students are consistently underrepresented.

Our research team interviewed a racially, academically, and economically diverse group of 36 students from two Chicago K-8 schools (“Forrester” and “Vista”) during and after their high school admissions process. As they researched, applied to and eventually enrolled in high school, they navigated Chicago’s long-standing and stubborn history of neighborhood and school segregation. They learned of schools’ racialized reputations, connected to both exaggerated images of schools’ positive or negative qualities, and concrete differences in resources like sports teams, technology, AP courses and study abroad opportunities. These students found themselves immersed in a racialized school choice process where year after year, thousands of applications are concentrated toward high performing schools located in predominantly white neighborhoods, while the application process is far less competitive at high performing schools in Brown- and Black-identified neighborhoods.

Despite the glaring inequities involved in the high school choice process, our study’s youth participants all believed that everyone did the same kinds of things to access their preferred high schools. This account matches what written school choice policies say. Those who rose to the top, they believed, ought to be first in line to attend their preferred high schools. 86% of youth participants believed that merit should at least partly (if not entirely) inform who is admitted to the city’s most preferred schools. By this reasoning, people who had the most merit fairly got the most choices. “Akin” said he would advise younger students to work hard, stressing that “they should do good now so to have a choice later of what high school they could go to.”

A small, disproportionately white and affluent subgroup of students embraced this same belief while also scrambling to boost their measured merit. They did this outside of school policy spaces, by, for example, taking test prep courses and private lessons that made them more competitive applicants to fine arts programs, and receiving parental help to meet multiple, often confusing application guidelines. They ended up in highly selective, exclusive public schools far more often than their peers of color. They even navigated their ways into more prestigious programs once admitted to high schools. Ina, initially rejected by the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program at “Condor” because of her grades, enrolled in another of the school’s programs. After her first months at Condor, Ina’s father (a white, college-educated professional) successfully arranged her transfer into the IB program. She saw this change as fair, saying that the school “can see now what I’ve done and how I am, that I can do this.” Ina acknowledged that her father’s confidence with school personnel, free time, and ability to speak English all supported her bid to move into a program that rejected so many students. Still, she believed that she had earned her spot.

What’s the problem here? It’s not just that affluent and White students got disproportionate access to high performing high schools. It’s not just that some people used resources that other people didn’t have and pretended all students were equal competitors with equal chances. It’s that our participants believed that the system works fairly for everyone, and accepted that the highest performing schools repeatedly enroll a much larger share of white students than is present in the district. Competitive school choice policies not only sort students according to racial and economic privilege, but they make it seem like this sorting process is natural, equitable and not worth questioning. However, this study’s results, alongside efforts to dismantle competitive choice policy in Boston and New York City, remind us that we must question how school choice policies exacerbate and legitimate inequality.

6 thoughts on “New Research: Student reflections on selective entry high schools

  1. What is the inequality? Do exam schools get 2 times the funding of non-exam schools? Is it non-monetary? I’ve read a bunch of articles on this topic recently and they just assume everyone already knows the answer to that line of questioning.


  2. Different forms of inequity. Certainly the restrictive enrollment schools are not racially representative of their districts (see the charts here –

    This would be a problem even if these weren’t “exam” or specialized schools- racial disproportionality in one schools can make schools more segregated across the district. For example, Boston Latin, alone, accounts for nearly 13% of the segregation in *other* Boston high schools. Only 7 Black students were admitted to NYC’s Stuyvesant HS last year, in a city that’s 25% Black. Since the research base is clear: integrated schools—> positive outcomes for all students, then this is not good.

    But, it’s especially problematic that these are specialized schools. And, per-pupil expenditure isn’t a good place to look for those disparities. Again taking Boston (where I work) as an example, a private group of benefactors/alumni pays for *7 staff positions* (7!) at the city’s top school (Boston Latin)- you won’t see that reflected in district spending, but it’s obviously a big deal. The city’s “exam” schools have basic things like libraries that are hard to find at other city schools. In addition, students who go to these schools have access to expanded programming that comes in through grant funds & they enjoy the benefit of alumni connections etc, which leads to very real educational/employment opportunities. It’s resource/opportunity hoarding.


  3. So a lot of it’s funding just by other means than tax dollars.

    Since you brought it up, what research do you reference for your statement that integrated schools are better for all students? When you say better, do you mean better for all individual students or do you mean better for everyone as a community or both?


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