AuthorRusso, Charles J.

Prolegomena 1166 I. Brief Select History of Modern Standardized Testing 1172 II. Positions on Standardized Entrance Examinations 1179 A. Arguments in Favor of Entrance Examinations 1179 B. Arguments in Opposition to Entrance Examinations 1180 III. Moving Forward 1182 Conclusion 1185 PROLEGOMENA

The popular 1980 movie "Fame," (1) which served as the basis for a subsequent television scries that aired from 1982-87 (2) and an eventual 2009 remake (3) of the original, was a fictional account of the travails of an entering class to New York City's High School for Music and the Performing Arts, now formally known as Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. The high school is located a stone's throw from Fordham University's School of Law in Midtown Manhattan, adjacent to the world-renowned Lincoln Center.

The movie version of "Fame," which details students' four-year careers, opens by narrating the story of how aspiring young artists dealt with the pressures associated with having to audition for faculty members in order to gain admission to the school. More specifically, rather than sitting for a traditional written standardized entrance examination, along with having to submit their portfolios evaluated as the means of demonstrating their qualifications to gain entry to this prestigious high school, students had to showcase their talents through their live auditions.

While certainly conceding that it is not the same as having to excel on traditional standardized tests, there can be no doubt that having to audition (4) successfully to gain admission to LaGuardia or similar prestigious programs is a no less stressful form of what may broadly be described as an authentic assessment of students' academic abilities. In fact, a good case can be made that an audition may be even more stressful than a single written examination because judgments of the quality of live performances run the risk of being more subjective than what are supposed to be objective standardized tests. (5) Even so, the decisions of school officials to embrace standardized tests as perhaps the central criterion of their admission policies has produced a unique kind of stress. (6) Putting aside concerns about whether a written test or live audition is more challenging, the remainder of this Essay focuses on the larger, timely question of whether examination schools (7) in the United States should continue to use standardized entrance examinations.

Despite the continued controversy surrounding the use of standardized tests in education, officials in selective public schools, almost all of which are at the secondary level, often referred to as "exam schools," in large urban districts such as Boston, (8) Detroit, (9) and New York City, (10) among others," have typically relied on specialized entrance examinations when admitting students. Doing so affords students who have exceptional ability the opportunity to excel in environments conducive to their skillsets. Notably, specialized schools did not always use the standardized examinations they do today; the use of such tests started in the Boston Latin School in 1635. (12) Similar schools emerged beginning in the mid-nineteenth century in urban centers such as New York City, Louisville, San Francisco, (13) and in Worcester, Massachusetts, which adopted such a test in 1901. (14)

Change is in the offing, though, as officials in the examination school in San Francisco adopted a lottery system for admissions (15) while their counterparts in Alexandria, Virginia, switched to "a 'holistic review' of applicants based on their grade point averages (GPAs), essays and other factors" (16) in lieu of its long-standing entrance examination. At the same time, officials in Boston changed their 20-year old policy, and grades are now being accorded greater weight than test scores as invitations to attend its three prestigious examination schools as students with grade point averages equivalent to a B can apply for admission; seats will be offered "to students in socioeconomic tiers based on geography with a set number of seats for each." (17)

Despite the development of other admissions methods and criteria, selective exam schools remain controversial. To this end, some educational officials and political leaders, (18) such as the former Mayor of New York Bill de Blasio, who tried to impose a lottery system for admissions to examination schools, (19) and his Chancellor of Schools Richard Cararanza, (20) did drop academic admissions screening for middle school students but ultimately retained entrance tests for the examination high schools. (21)

Some critics have called for the closure of exam schools, even as other critics sought to have courts discontinue programs for the gifted in New York City, where a judge rejected the claim on the basis that "the court doesn't 'make educational policy.'" (22) Critics oppose these schools because even though they are typically located in large urban centers, the schools may result in inequitable outcomes and racial disparities. (23) Supporters respond that the changes ignore academic success. (24) Opponents continue to criticize exam schools because they "have much lower proportions of Black, Hispanic and low-income students than the districts they are located in" (25) while seeking ways to increase attendance among students who are black and Hispanic. (26) On the other hand, supporters respond that eliminating such test schools unfairly targets students who are gifted and talented by denying them opportunities to demonstrate how they can excel in educational environments developed for their unique learning needs. (27)

The upshot is that according to estimates, of the approximately 165 examination schools existing in the United States, only 13 of the 58 institutions whose officials provided data on their opening dates existed prior to World War II. Another 21 exam schools opened their doors between 1941 and 1990. (28) Yet, only six of the exam schools start as early as fourth-grade. (29) Put simply, the number of examinations schools is relatively small.

Take New York City, for instance, home of the largest public school system in the United States, (30) which includes its nine specialized schools. There, issues abound over a contentious 1971 state statute, the Hecht-Calandra Act (the "HC Act"). (31) The HC Act was designed to afford disadvantaged students who lived in high-poverty areas with significant academic potential to gain entry into to specialized schools. (32) The HC Act's goal was to provide opportunities to earn seats in New York City's original select specialized high schools with their rigorous standards such as at Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School, and LaGuardia High School, which, as noted, admitted students on the basis of portfolios or auditions. (33)

The bone of contention in New York City, unlike in school systems such as Chicago, "which operates a more inclusive, geographically-based policy," (34) focuses on the HC Act. The HC Act statutorily obligates officials to admit students to eight select schools exclusively on the basis of their results on a single competitive standardized examination, the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). (35)

Against this background, and aware that change is likely to occur in New York City under recently elected Mayor Eric Adams (36) in a manner similar to what has already transpired in the other urban selective examination schools discussed above, the remainder of this short Essay examines the debate around standard testing in four substantive parts. The first Part briefly reviews the history of standardized testing in American education because it occupies such a central role in the operations of exam schools. The second and third parts, respectively, present an overview of arguments in favor of, and opposed to, the use of one-time high stakes tests as the standard for gaining admission to selective high schools.

The fourth Part of the Essay reflects on what educational leaders, policymakers, and lawmakers, whether in New York City or other urban school systems, as well as systems in urban and rural communities, may wish to consider moving forward for exam schools designed to benefit children with higher levels of achievement in various areas. This final Part maintains that while high stakes tests should continue to carry some weight in admissions decisions, they should by no means be the sole, or even primary, criterion. Instead, this Part ruminates on ways in which educational leaders, policymakers, and lawmakers working with parents and community members can work together to improve admissions processes to these select schools. In particular, this Part recommends making admissions processes more holistic, (37) equitable, and authentic, evaluating and assisting students as whole persons as opposed to focusing on a single criterion in their records such as a standardized examination. The Essay ends with a brief conclusion.


    In order to set a basis for the later discussion of issues associated with standardized testing, this Part briefly highlights major developments associated with the use of such measures. Standardized tests, (38) which are measures that constitute the most significant criterion in admitting students to the majority of exam schools, trace their earliest roots to seventh century Imperial China dating to about 200 BC. (39) Early forms of standardized tests in the West, spurred on by the invention of the printing press, (40) can be defined as "any test that's administered, scored, and interpreted in a standard, predetermined manner." (41)

    In the modern era, Horace Mann, secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in the mid-nineteenth century, is considered the father of standardized testing because he introduced written examinations in...

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