Exam High Schools and Academic Achievement: Evidence from New York City

New York City




What is the impact of attending a publicly funded exam school on student achievement and other longer-term outcomes?


There are currently nine specialized high schools in New York City today that admit students based on a competitive examination, but our analysis focused the original three:  Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant. We took advantage of a sharp discontinuity in the admissions process of these three, publicly-funded and highly reputed schools to produce the first causal estimate of the impact of attending an exam high school in the United States on high school courses completed, graduation, SAT scores, and college enrollment. 


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While exam high schools increase the likelihood that students will take more rigorous high school coursework and graduate high school with an advanced diploma, this analysis surprisingly showed little impact on SAT scores. Moreover, the impact on graduation and college enrollment rates was, if anything, negative. There are, however, several important caveats to this analysis. First, our study design focused on students just above and just below the cutoff points for admissions to these schools, so naturally these data reveal the impact of attendance on students who were marginally admitted to these exam schools. Secondly, students who narrowly missed the cutoff for admission to an elite exam school were likely to attend another high-quality school. Finally, some students in our sample also left the NYC school system altogether. While this paper contributes to the literature on school choice and high-performing schools, there remains considerable opportunity for further research into peer effects and the impact of these schools on later-life outcomes.