The New York Times had another article lamenting the racially unrepresentative student composition of Stuyvesant High School and the other New York City high schools that use the Specialized Science High School test for admissions. This is a pretty typical feature at the NYT and elsewhere. This entry was distinctive in stating in its headline that “Diversity Lags” in these schools and not mentioning what was probably most salient to most readers: that the schools are now predominantly Asian, and becoming more so.
While these schools are distinctive in being particularly politically charged as (ostensibly) the city’s most prestigious public high schools, many New York City insiders will privately or not-so-privately tell you that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. When I met Dave Levin, the founder of KIPP in 2001, for example, he mentioned that he would prefer that even KIPP students who could get into one of these schools instead find scholarships to private schools instead- his sense was that there just wasn’t enough support for students at the tested schools, he thought, for it to be of benefit to lower-income kids. And unlike Hunter College High School (also tested, though mostly for 7th grade entry rather than 9th) which has a passionate group of alumni devotees, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech alums tend in my experience to be more ambivalent. When Roland Fryer and William Dobbie, two Harvard economists, looked at the long-term impacts of making the cut at one of the tested schools, the results were fairly meh:
Attending an exam school increases the rigor of high school courses taken and the probability that a student graduates with an advanced high school degree. Surprisingly, however, attending an exam school has little impact on Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, college enrollment, or college graduation — casting doubt on their ultimate long term impact
For longer-term outcomes, if you controlled for baseline test scores, the results were approximately nil:
So another point towards Arnold Kling’s “Null Hypothesis in Education,” or what I call the Iron Law, although one would be tempted to think that for the eight Bronx Science alumni who won the Nobel Prize or the four Stuyvesant alums who did, where they went to high school did make a difference.
What doesn’t get mentioned very often in discussions of these schools is how typical they are of the patterns present in the other 400 New York City public high schools. While every year, the results of the Stuyvesant admissions test come out and the Times laments the skewed results relative to the student body of the city as a whole, the tested schools are just extreme versions of the patterns that predominate across all the less-selective schools that the overwhelming majority of students will attend. Here for example, using the NYCDOE’s publicly available data, is a lowess plot of the percent of students earning an on-time Advanced Regents Diploma four years after entering a high school, versus the percentage of different ethnic/racial groups at that school:
Similarly, here’s the 4-year dropout rate versus ethnic composition for the 400 schools:
If you look at the individual schools and take logs to spread out the schools, it becomes clearer that Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, and the other tested schools aren’t as different as they at first might appear:
In fact, the way the tested schools stand out most from the rest of the 400 other schools is in being more male than most schools with a lot of high achievers; as noted in the table above, Stuyvesant is 57% young men. It would appear that majority female schools have more high achievers than majority male schools, on average, and the lowest dropout rates are found in schools with about 40% boys:
Well, I can easily believe that the majority of the best high school students in New York City are young women, even if the majority of the best high school test takers in New York City are young men. But it’s also likely that a lot of boys who test well but goof off in middle school (cough, cough) benefit from the existence of the test admissions schools, versus the portfolio and grades-based admissions process that is typical in other desirable New York City high schools, public as well as private. The Stuyvesant schools actually have a much simpler admissions process than most New York City public schools, believe it or not.
Personally, I’d keep the admissions to the tested schools as they are, inequitable outcomes notwithstanding. My own experience as a middle school teacher was that the 8th graders in New York City, most of them Asian-American or recently arrived Asian immigrants, who studied like hell for the Stuyvesant/Bronx Science/Brooklyn Tech exam really did learn more math as a result. The test may produce inequitable outcomes, but its status as one of the few gateways to an elite education that does not require bowing before a credentialed admissions officer is itself very motivating for those kids and their parents, and perhaps they do better academically in an absolute as well as a relative sense as a result of studying to get in, quite apart from whether the schools themselves are any good. (Dobbie and Fryer’s article can’t answer this question, since it only takes the scores on the test themselves as a baseline.)
There’s also something a little perverse about the intensity of criticism these schools receive every year, given how little attention is given to the demographics of the wealthy private schools that are the true gateways to prestige in the city. Last week, when I was looking up information about which high schools Middlebury students attended (cough again, Richard Reeves, no link?), I came across this description of a group of thirteen successful Middlebury seniors. One of them went to Stuyvesant, one of only four students from public American high schools- all the rest went to private and/or international schools. My own middle school students who got into the selective tested schools, during the three years I did a before-school prep class, included a couple dozen lower-income recent immigrants. The regular abuse the tested schools come in for from the media seem to be part and parcel of the broad belief that only racial diversity, and not class diversity, matters for education. After all, the New York Times us, “Diversity Lags,”- the kind of diversity that Stuyvesant or Brooklyn tech has is the kind of Diversity that doesn’t matter.
There’s a lot to be said for keeping at least some gateways in our society open to a transparent and fair process, given that Wizard of Oz-like committees-and-algorithms hiding behind a curtain appear to be becoming ever more ubiquitous part of how educational institutions are run, and given that test scores seem to be less susceptible to gaming by higher-income applicants than the criteria favored by “holistic” admissions processes. It doesn’t mean that this is the only way to do things, or that every desirable school has to approach admissions the same way. But the Achilles-like rage against the results of a fair process that the New York Times engages in every year when the Stuyvesant test results come out (Sing, O goddess, of the differences in extreme values of normally-distributed distributions, which brought countless woes upon the Greeks, and hurled many valiant souls of heroes down to Hades) bespeaks an antipathy towards transparency and simplicity in our institutions that matters for more than just a few high schools serving a few thousand nerdy but deserving kids.