Evidence on New York City and Boston exam schools

Susan Dynarski:

New York City is wrestling with what to do with its exam schools. Students at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech (the oldest exam schools) perform brilliantly and attend the best colleges. Their students score at the 99th percentile of the state SAT distribution (with Stuyvesant at the 99.9th percentile) and they account for the majority of New York City students attending Harvard, Princeton and Yale.1 These are by any measure elite schools and are revered as jewels of the city school system.

But of the 900 freshmen who enrolled at Stuyvesant this past fall, just 10 were black.2 By state law, admission to these schools is via a specialized, voluntary, admissions test. Mayor Bill de Blasio and others complain that this admissions system perpetuates inequality in opportunity to an excellent education.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the exam schools, in popular news outlets as well as in academic journals. In this piece, I address a narrow but relevant question: the causal impact of these schools on the students who attend them. Do the exam schools produce academically outstanding graduates, or do they simply admit stellar students and enjoy credit for their successes? I also briefly discuss alternative methods the city could use to dole out scarce seats at these over-subscribed schools.

Understanding the effectiveness of any school is a challenge because parents choose their children’s schools. In many cases, the school a child attends is tied to her address, so a parent effectively chooses a school when she picks a residence. In places like New York and Boston, which have district-wide choice, families can choose from dozens of public schools, including charters, magnets and exam schools. And there are private schools for those who can afford them or who have vouchers to subsidize the cost.