Does it help to attend a selective high school?

Probably not on average in the U.S., and for low-SES students it depends on the context.

When it comes to academic outcomes, attending a selective high school in the U.S. on the basis of prior achievement does not seem to move the needle for students on average.

  • One reason for these null effects on average may be that selective high schools in U.S. cities tend to take only the very highest-achieving students who are often more advantaged and therefore likely to thrive regardless of where they go to school. In contrast, in countries where secondary school assignment system-wide is based on achievement, attending a better school can increase performance, e.g. Trinidad and Tobago (Jackson 2010) and Romania (Pop-Eleches and Urquiola 2013).

Among low-SES students, attending a selective high school can help or hurt depending on context.

  • In Chicago, a place-based affirmative action program at a selective high school caused students from low-SES neighborhoods to experience no change in test scores but a drop in both grades and the odds of attending a selective college. These negative outcomes were likely driven by having a lower class rank at these schools (Barrow et al 2020).
  • However, lower-SES students had higher test scores and better college outcomes when they attended a selective public boarding school (Shi 2020). This may be due to the more immersive experienced offered by boarding schools.

Academics aside, attending a more selective high school can impact some important social/psychological outcomes:

  • Students who attend more selective high schools felt marginalized because they were relatively weaker in Romania (Pop-Eleches and Urquiola 2013) and had lower self-concept even up to four years after graduating in Germany (Marsh et al 2007).
  • Students at selective high schools in Chicago were more positive about their high school experiences in terms of peer relationships and personal safety (Allensworth et al, 2016; Barrow et al 2020).

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