As we try to make sure that no child gets left behind, are we keeping others from getting ahead? Or, as Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett put it in “Exam Schools”: “As the country strives to . . . close its wide achievement gaps [and] repair its bad schools . . . is it also challenging its high achieving and highly motivated students?”
This isn’t an easy question to answer. Most high-achieving students are educated in ordinary public schools, often taking the more challenging courses in an honors-track curriculum or Advanced Placement classes. But some are educated in academically selective high schools that require students to score well on tough exams just to get in. According to the criteria chosen by Mr. Finn and Ms. Hockett–principally, that schools be publicly funded and admission competitive–there are 165 such high schools in the U.S., out of 22,568.
These days, when parents seem ever more eager to get their children into Ivy League colleges, competitive high schools may seem uncontroversial–merely an early version of the selectivity that universities routinely practice in their own admissions practices. But during the 1960s and 1970s, exam schools came under attack for their elitism. When the country was trying to desegregate schools and provide more money to low-income districts, schools for the gifted were countercultural–out of step with the egalitarian spirit of the times.