Book of the Month

Back to August 2013 Ed Reporter

Book of the Month

Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Jessica A. Hockett, Princeton University Press, 2012, $24.95.

Scores of years, tremendous energy, and billions of dollars spent attempting to raise the academic performance and graduation rates of underperforming students have accomplished very little. What has largely been ignored are ways to challenge and support those children who have high potential and are highly motivated. Exam Schools poses the question: Have we neglected our best and brightest students while seeking equality and uniformity in education?

The authors, along with the Fordham Institute and the Stanford University Hoover Institute, identified 165 public high schools as “exam schools”; the term refers to the exams taken in order to qualify for admittance to these schools. The authors define exam schools as public, self-contained, academically selective and competitive, with curricula aimed toward college-level work. Out of 22,568 public high schools in the U.S., only 165 schools meet these criteria. The schools serve fewer than 1% of all high school students. They are located in 30 states and D.C.

Although these schools all use an entrance exam, prior academic performance is the most common and important criterion for selecting students. Responding schools also take into account teacher recommendations and student essays. The schools have more applicants than they can accommodate and most turn away qualified students.

One thing most of the schools have in common is that they are “politically and fiscally fragile.” Some would alter or threaten them, calling them “elitist.” Exam schools walk a fine line of promoting themselves, yet to a certain degree flying under the radar. The schools often have courageous leaders. Their principals are for the most part politically adept individuals who can deflect criticism and attacks from those who would demonize or eliminate their schools.

Exam schools enjoy student and parental support. Teacher turnover is low. Some exam schools are well funded, while some barely survive. Many have a racially diverse student body, in part because they often are located in urban areas.

The authors provide a state-by-state index of all identified exam schools and an in-depth report on eleven of the schools. Few states and districts support schools that specifically serve students who may excel.

Meritocracy has in the past 30 years given way to egalitarianism to a degree destructive to a successful education system, in the estimation of many. Equal mediocrity is not an effective approach to education. Exam Schools can be used as a model to inform all education.