Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Study Casts Doubt on the Ability of Highly Competitive High Schools to Raise Test Scores

While more and more applicants try to get into the country's most competitive high schools, a new study suggests that all that effort may not be worth it.  The study, entitled "The Elite Illusion," by economists from MIT and Duke University, compared the students who gained entry to some of the nation's top examination schools (public school that students must apply and take entrance exams in order to attend) to their peers who didn't quite make the cut.  They found that, three or four years, there were virtually no difference in test scores, including state standardized tests, SAT and ACT tests, and AP exams, between the two populations.

This obviously is a narrow study, and applies only to the top tier of students.  Plus, of course, it conflates educational value and achievement with test scores, which readers of this blog know I find a dubious proposition.

However, it should alleviate some of the pressure on students to get into these top schools.  It demonstrates that smart, hard working students can attain equivalent test scores without having to attend the one "magic" school set up for the top achievers.  It also disputes one of the main arguments about these schools--that being around other top students will drive high achievers to superior performance.  This study found that their test performance was no better than the top students left to pursue their education with a traditional school filled with "average" students.

If this is true, it may even behoove students NOT to attend such schools if they are planning on applying to the most competitive colleges.  The thing is, the colleges all have a cap on how many students they will take from any one high school.  For example, if Bill Gates could prove that he had rounded up the 1,000 most brilliant students in the country for an advanced Bill Gates High School, Harvard wouldn't accept all 1,000 of them, no matter how much smarter they might be.  They would only take a small percentage--25 or 50 students maybe?--because they want a diverse, but still high achieving student body.  A student with a 2200 SAT score who is number 1 in an average school that doesn't have a lot of Harvard applicants may stand a better chance than a student with a 2300 SAT score from an elite school that has dozens of other applicants also trying to get in.

It's just something to consider....

This is particularly interesting for homeschoolers to consider.  Many families decide to have their homeschooled children go to school for their high school years for a whole variety of reasons.  But certainly an important consideration is preparation for college and trying to make the students more competitive by having them in school with other high achieving students.  But this study implies that elite peer relationships don't result in higher test scores.

For example, in our area, most of the homeschoolers I know who are going to school for high school want to get into Raleigh Charter High School, which was the Number 1 school in North Carolina in the Washington Post annual High School Challenge that ranks the best high schools in the country (although it was only 55th best on the national list).  But it is not that much more likely to get into Raleigh Charter, which I think accepts 11% of eligible applicants through a lottery system, than to get into Harvard, which accepts about 7% of applicants.

Anyway, this study is reassuring for those other 89% that don't get into Raleigh Charter that by taking the right classes and doing the hard work, they can earn equally impressive test scores even at a "normal" school.

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