The Selective-Admission Quandary

When Jessica Hockett and I embarked upon the Fordham-Hoover study that gave rise to our recent book Exam Schools, we predicted that the touchiest issue in the realm of would turn out to be how, exactly, they choose their pupils.

We were right. This also turned out to be the aspect of these schools that was hardest for outsiders to get a handle on. In some cases, the admissions process is truly Byzantine. In some, it’s partly or totally out of the hands of the school itself. It takes many different forms, from strict adherence to rank-ordered scores on a single test to multi-dimensional and holistic evaluations akin to those practiced by selective private colleges.

As I talk with more people who are smack in the middle of this, it’s becoming clear to me that—to put it bluntly—you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, at least in situations where swarms of qualified kids vastly outnumber the openings at your school.

The school heads understand this full well and are frustrated by the impossible choice it places before them (and whoever else makes such decisions for their schools).

Straight-out test-based admission gives rise to two undesirable situations:

  • Without a lot of affirmative-action-style manipulation (of the kind the Supreme Court has vetoed), it almost never yields a pupil population that demographically resembles the catchment zone from which it draws students. This is most evident in high-profile, high-demand schools such as New York’s Stuyvesant and Hunter College High Schools and in northern Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where more than half the students today are of Asian descent and the numbers of African American and Hispanic pupils are paltry.
  • It leads to the admission of at least some kids who are test wise and clever but may lack ambition, persistence, imagination, or even regular attendance.

The benefit of test-based admission, on the other hand, is that it has at least the appearance of complete objectivity and transparency and makes it relatively easy to resist manipulation, favoritism, and political pressure. (“Sorry, Governor, but your niece came in below this year’s numerical cut-off.”)

You will not be surprised to learn that the “holistic” approach to admission also brings serious woes of its own, and that these are pretty much the obverse of the problems associated with test-based entry. Now it’s the difficulties that arise when at least part of admissions decision-making is subjective. Human beings have to make judgment calls about which kids are “better fits” or otherwise more suitable for entry into this school than other kids. This subjectivity means that the grownups involved in the process can be intimidated, bribed, coerced, leaned on, and pleaded with—and sometimes by very influential people.

Selective-admission colleges and private schools face this sort of thing all the time, but they control their own destinies. They’re not part of universal, compulsory public education systems like the high schools on our list in Exam Schools. They’re not, by and large, answerable to elected officials. This isn’t to say they never yield to entreaties from alums, wealthy benefactors, trustees, key faculty members, and influential community leaders; they can do so because they don’t have to follow the norms of public servants. People in K–12’s public sector do.

On the other hand, holistic admissions brings many benefits to a school. It can yield a student body that is duly diverse—and on many dimensions, not just ethnicity. And it can screen candidates for qualities such as energy, stick-to-it-iveness, and imagination, as well as their track records in middle school.

All things considered, is one system preferable? Keep in mind that a test-score-based admissions process is speedy and efficient, whereas the holistic kind takes quite a lot of effort. Keep in mind, too, that the kinds of outside interference and manipulation that must be anticipated in the holistic version may consume innumerable hours of administrator time that might better be spent ensuring that the school’s actual students get a tip-top education. In a test-score-based environment, those phone calls are short—and it’s unlikely that anyone will credibly threaten the principal or admissions director with being fired.

Rarely does the principal herself actually decide what system will be used to admit kids to her school. It’s likely to be determined mainly by external policymakers—legislators, school boards, even university presidents—and often it’s enshrined in statute, as well as longstanding tradition. Nor is the choice of admission procedures necessarily black and white: Some places have had the good sense to remove such decisions at least one step from those who run the school, enabling the latter to stick to their educational knitting and making some other office the bad cop. (That how it works at Thomas Jefferson.) Some places also use a blended approach. (Dozens of selective high schools in New York City—not including the eight that rely entirely on test scores—follow a complex citywide dual-track choice-and-selection process akin to the “match” system by which medical residents get placed.)

So it need not be all one or the other, and it’s possible to devise procedures that contain some of the better features of both. Still and all, the really crazy-sad policy question arising from all this is why does it have to be so difficult for outstanding students to get into top-flight high schools? Why not create more such schools?

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared in the Fordham Institute”s Education Gadfly Weekly.

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