Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett explain the criteria used in Exam Schools

In the coming months, lots of people are going to have questions about why this or that school isn’t included in Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett’s new book Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools. The authors acknowledge that their list, presented as an Appendix in the book, may not be complete, but that it does represent, to the best of their present ability and knowledge, the most comprehensive, state-by-state list of examination schools in America. I asked them to describe the criteria they used to identify schools that should be included in their unprecedented study. Here’s what they had to say:

The first challenge we faced was simply identifying which schools should be included in our research, a process we liken to “searching for needles in the high school haystack.” There are 22,568 public high schools in the United States and after careful application of the following criteria, only 165 schools remained.

It may surprise readers to discover that the list of exam schools in Appendix 1 of our book is the first of its kind and it was difficult to assemble. There is no “Association of Examination Schools” from which you can cull this information, and we used information from a variety of information sources—published lists of top high schools in the country, SAT and ACT scores, professional organizations, and state/district websites and personnel—to assemble this list.

We made every effort to make sure the list is comprehensive and complete, but we acknowledge it may not be exhaustive or absolutely accurate. We invite readers to help us refine and update it. Let us know if we missed a school that meets our criteria and should be included in future studies. To this end, we are happy to share the criteria we used to find the schools currently listed in our book.

The Criteria:

First, it’s a public school, predominantly (or fully) supported with tax dollars, does not charge tuition, is operated by or under the aegis of a public body, and is accountable to a duly constituted public authority.

Second, it offers 12th grade and has a graduating class each year. That’s what we call a “high school,” even though it might also include elementary or middle grades. (This criterion barred a few new schools that were “growing” toward 12th grade but didn’t have a graduating class as of 2009–10.)

Third, it’s self-contained, not a program or school within another school. Hundreds of U.S. high schools contain academies, magnet or specialized programs, schools within the school, or distinctive course sequences that are selective or application based. Our list, however, is limited to schools where all enrolled students are selected through an admissions process.

Fourth, it offers an academic curriculum aimed at college readiness. The school may off er a variety of course sequences or specializations, but its overall curriculum is implicitly or expressly designed to give all of its students the skills and knowledge they will need for college-level work.

Fifth, it employs an admissions process that is academically selective. That process involves substantial attention to a student’s academic potential and/or academic record, usually incorporating some attention to exam results. An array of other factors may also be weighed–such as attendance and behavior–but the process primarily emphasizes criteria such as grades, test scores, or writing samples.

Sixth and finally, its admissions process is academically competitive. We considered it to be so if more students apply than can be accommodated, or if a student’s application could be rejected on the basis of his/her academic merit in relation to that of other applicants and/or the school’s standards.

Excerpted from Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools
by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Jessica A. Hockett (Princeton University Press, 2012).

Refining the List

These straightforward criteria yielded a significant number of schools that have programs catering to academically advanced students, but are not straightforward examination schools, so the list was further refined. For the complete details, we refer you to the book, page 23-35, but the schools eliminated in this step include partial-day schools, programs, and centers; competitive/selective programs within schools, schools for the arts; schools that admit via lottery; schools that skip the diploma en route to college.

New York City also posed a unique challenge as it uses a complex application-and-placement system for all of its 600+ high school programs. About 75 high schools technically meet all six of our criteria, but in order to identify the most academically selective, we included only those schools that required minimum scores of 85 percent on the state assessments. This brought the number down to 15, in addition to eight specialized high schools that have a separate exam for entrance.

The End Result

After all the searching and refining, we were left with a list of 165 schools in thirty states and the District of Columbia. Readers and education researchers now have a resource that shows that these schools are more prevalent in some parts of the country than others; that there are many of these schools in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, but none in Los Angeles, Denver, and Minneapolis. Identifying these schools allowed us to then survey their admissions processes; outcomes; demographics; and teacher, parent, student, and community expectations—all material included in Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools.