School & District Management

Some Top Students Just Average At ‘Star’ Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — November 07, 2001 4 min read
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Ask any realtor: Prospective buyers with children compete for homes in neighborhoods where the public schools are top-notch, believing it will increase the youngsters’ chances of admission to the best colleges.

A recent study, however, suggests that can actually put applicants at a disadvantage.

A paper published in the October issue of Sociology of Education finds that students at the 200 or so most elite public high schools face a tougher road getting into top colleges than do comparable students at other, less prestigious high schools.

To polish their school profiles, many “star” high schools have evolved systems of grooming only the top tier of their students for the most selective colleges, which handicaps all other students in the hot contest for college, author Paul Attewell contends.

“These schools are letting their policy for the school as a whole be driven by attempts to get their top handful of students into the very best colleges,” Mr. Attewell, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, said in an interview. “They are harming a large number of students in an attempt to help a few.”

Winner-Take-All System

Mr. Attewell examined SAT scores of 1.2 million 1997 high school graduates, Advanced Placement course data, and college-placement data. He found several patterns in the way some leading public high schools sort their college-bound students.

Some of the schools allow only the most promising students into honors and AP classes, establishing a relatively unblemished schoolwide record, Mr. Attewell said. Some use weighted grade point averages that allow students in honors or AP classes to earn GPAs of more than 4.0, he said, and others push their grading curves so high that even high-achieving students end up with B’s and C’s. Such systems create a “winner take all” market within a school, in which “the strongest students benefit at the expense of those below,” Mr. Attewell argues. “They want to bet on the sure thing, on the strong students,” he said. “The winner-take-all schools essentially deflect away the kids who are marginal.”

Mr. Attewell offered two stories of students from “star” schools in Boston suburbs to illustrate the culling process.

One boy who wanted to take AP science and math in high school was told by math department faculty members that he wasn’t suited to the work.

When his parents pointed out that he had scored in the top 1 percent on the Preliminary SAT, school officials responded that the boy was smart, but not smart enough, Mr. Attewell said.

The student ended up in the less advanced math track and went on to a good college, but not an Ivy League-caliber school as he had wished.

A girl from another school scored a perfect 800 on the math portion of the SAT, but received a C in math because the grading curve at her school was so high, Mr. Attewell said. She had A’s in other subjects, but the C affected her class ranking and likely contributed to her failure to be admitted to her chosen college, he said.

Schools are losing sight of their mission when they focus so intensely on a small group of promising students, Mr. Attewell said. “They don’t need to harm the chances of kids outside the top circle,” he said. “They should encourage as many kids as reasonably can make it to do so.”

It’s a difficult bind for many schools, since they know that colleges examine not only the performance of a given student, and that student’s ranking relative to other students’, but also the rigor of the school’s curriculum.

Some educators contend that allowing all students to take AP courses could dilute the meaning of an accomplishment that helps colleges make that distinction.

A Different Approach

Marybeth Kravets, a college consultant at the 1,500-student Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Ill., one of the schools Mr. Attewell refers to as a “star” school, said school officials keep the doors to honors classes as open as possible, with 50 such courses being offered each year. Additional sections are added if demand warrants.

Ms. Kravets acknowledged that some students are counseled against AP classes if such courses don’t seem suitable for them. But that is more an attempt to match a student and a class appropriately for a successful outcome than to manipulate college admissions, she said.

Ms. Kravetz believes that schools can ease some of the pressure that leads to the student-sorting process by ensuring that all students take the PSAT and have broad access to honors courses.

Any concern about a dilution of the meaning of the scores can be offset by a strong connection between a high school’s staff and colleges, she said. Ms. Kravets, for instance, visits 100 colleges a year, pitching the strengths of the school’s students, and makes more connections by phone.

Nevertheless, schools face a constant struggle to negotiate the “ripple down” effect of college and working-world pressures to focus only on the most promising students, said Ms. Kravetz, a 23-year veteran of college counseling. She is the immediate past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, based in Alexandria, Va.

“The colleges wag the tail for the high schools, and the high schools wag the tail for the junior highs,” she said. “The law firms and accounting firms who hire kids out of college wag the tail of colleges because they want to interview kids from the ‘right’ colleges.

“Somewhere along the way, it has to stop,” she said. “High schools want to be known as the school where the yield was the best. But at what cost?”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Some Top Students Just Average At ‘Star’ Schools


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