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.
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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.
- Studies in Boston (Abdulkadiroğlu et al 2014), New York (Abdulkadiroğlu et al 2014; Dobbie and Fryer 2014), and Chicago (Allensworth et al, 2016; Barrow et al 2020) all find no evidence that attending a selective high school has any benefit on a wide range of academic outcomes including test scores, college enrollment, or college quality. Grades often get worse, likely due to the fact that grades are partially determined by class rank (Allensworth et al, 2016; Bui et al 2014; Barrow et al 2020).
- 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).