Elite high school admission’s conundrum

The obsession with diversity in schools has reached a new high in New York City (“Study Shows Scores on Elite High School Test Predict Success,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 4).  A study commissioned by its Department of Education found that the controversial Specialized High School Admissions Test had predictive value, particularly in math and science.

Yet despite the conclusion, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to eliminate the exam and use a mix of course grades and state test scores in order to engineer diversity at the city’s elite high schools.  I understand the benefits of a diverse student body, but I think abolishing the test will have unintended consequences.  When students lack the wherewithal to handle rigorous material, they will become discouraged and drop out.  If their teachers attempt to adjust instruction to help them, their more advanced classmates will be shortchanged.

A better way of solving the problem is to continue to use the SHSAT as a screening device and then use a lottery to select those who surpass the cut score.  The Principle of the Flat Maximum explains why.  All applicants at the top of the curve possess the necessary qualifications for success.  Trying to distinguish among them is a waste of time.  A lottery will avoid charges of bias and favoritism.  But I seriously doubt that will ever happen.  Diversity trumps excellence as the ultimate goal.

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2 Replies to “Elite high school admission’s conundrum”

  1. But what’s to prevent the NYC education administrators from setting a relatively low cut score for the exam and then using the lottery to achieve the desired diversity while still indirectly watering down the student quality?

    In my opinion, “diversity” in an academically elite school is largely meaningless. Either the students are selected based on academic merit (in which case there will be relatively little diversity) or the students are selected to achieve diversity (in which case the school will no longer be academically elite). Drawing on my personal experience (and that of my now-adult children when they were in K-12 and college), students who make the academically-elite cut are relatively homogeneous — even if they are from different racial, ethnic or even income backgrounds, their academic excellence translates into them being pretty much the same in most of the ways that “diversity” is supposed to enrich a school experience. Conversely, students who display a significant amount of the characteristics society generally associates with being black, Hispanic, Asian, or poor will very rarely also be among the academically elite.

    My personal preference would be to eliminate the academically elite K-12 schools and instead reinstate tracking in each of the K-12 schools throughout a school system — with perhaps a very limited program whereby truly exceptional high school students would take at least some of their courses at local colleges. At a minimum, this would eliminate the thousands (millions?) of student and parent hours spent each year in NYC transporting students from their neighborhoods to their elite or charter schools.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Diversity trumps everything else in education today. In a pure meritocracy, excellence should be the No. 1 concern. Other countries are not as obsessed as we are about diversity. But we are determined one way or another to engineer the desired composition. I don’t think we can have it both ways. I support tracking because it recognizes that students differ in their ability and aptitude.


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