New Report Identifies 165 Public High Schools That Admit Students Based on Top Academic Records

Chester E. Finn, Jr. Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Jessica Hockett
Janice B. Riddell (203) 912-8675 External Relations, Education Next

New Report Identifies 165 Public High Schools That Admit Students Based on Top Academic Records

Schools disproportionately serve Asians and African Americans; Whites and Latinos underrepresented

CAMBRIDGE, MA – A new report investigates 165 public high schools in the United States that are dedicated to teaching top achievers.  These high schools are sometimes known as “exam schools” in reference to their selective admissions criteria, which can include entrance exams.  Researchers Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Jessica Hockett have explored these institutions, asking if their “whole school” focus on high achievers might play a larger role in educating top students in a national climate “consumed with gap closing.”  Their analysis, “Exam Schools from the Inside,” will appear in the Fall issue of Education Next and is available online at

Finn and Hockett’s investigation shows that the schools are more racially diverse, taken as a whole, than is widely believed.  African Americans comprise 30 percent of their enrollment versus 17 percent in the larger public high school population.  Asian Americans comprise 21 percent of their enrollment, compared with 5 percent of all high-schoolers.  Hispanic students are underrepresented, however, as are white students.  Academically selective public high schools are 35 percent white and 13 percent Hispanic, as compared to 56 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in the public high school universe.  Economically, the exam school student body is only slightly less poor than the U.S. public high school population.

Some exam schools – such as Stuyvesant, Boston Latin, Thomas Jefferson and Illinois Math and Science Academy – are well known, but the sector as a whole (enrolling 136,000 students, about 1 percent of the total high school population) is little understood.  The schools spark controversy;  some people think that they are elitist or exclusive while others believe that selectivity contradicts the mission of public education.  The schools are vulnerable to budget cuts, even though they are vastly oversubscribed by eager applicants.

The authors surveyed the schools’ leaders and visited 11 schools, finding them to be “serious, purposeful places:  competitive but supportive, energized yet calm.”  Students want to be at these schools and behavior problems are minimal.  Surveyed schools reported a 91% graduation rate.

Most exam schools offer AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, but many also (or instead) feature other kinds of specialized offerings.  Schools with a STEM focus or university affiliations, for example, offer courses that few traditional high schools provide – such as Human Infectious Diseases, Chemical Pharmacology, and Vector Calculus.

With few exceptions (chiefly in Louisiana), exam schools are not charter schools.  Most teachers in exam schools are subject to the provisions of collective-bargaining contracts, but almost on in five is not (or not fully) subject to seniority-based staffing decisions.  Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents indicated that teacher-hiring decisions are made at the school level or jointly by school and district.

These “whole school” models appear to offer the kind of dedication to high achievement, as well as reinforcement from similarly focused peers, that serve students with exceptional abilities well.  Whether the U.S. creates more schools of this kind or widens its offerings of specialized programs in regular district schools, the authors observe that “If the best of such schools are hothouses for incubating a disproportionate share of tomorrow’s leaders in science, technology, entrepreneurship, and other sectors that bear on society’s long-term prosperity and well-being, we’d be better off as a country if we had more of them.”

About the Authors

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a contributing editor of Education Next.  Jessica Hockett is an educational consultant specializing in differentiated instruction, curriculum design, and teacher professional development.  This article is based on the authors’ forthcoming book, Exam Schools:  Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools (Princeton University Press), a joint undertaking of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  The authors are available for interviews.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform.  Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  For more information about Education Next, please visit:

For more information on the Program on Education Policy and Governance contact Antonio Wendland at 617-495-7976,, or visit

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College