While the pandemic has dramatically increased inequality in education, one change could expand opportunity: Many elite public schools are halting exam-based admissions. In Fairfax County, Va., a judge recently permitted Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to move forward with scrapping its admissions test. In San Francisco, the school board voted to change admissions to Lowell High School from an exam to a lottery-based system. And in New York,  the assessment that 4-year-olds take for admission to the city’s gifted and talented programs is on hold while the mayor tries to come up with something better.

Prestigious programs like these are hailed as the crown jewels of their school systems. They offer a wide range of advanced curriculums. Their students vie for spots in top colleges. Their average SAT scores are well ahead of student scores from the open-enrollment schools in their districts. They are also shockingly homogenous: Black and Latino students are vastly underrepresented, and White and Asian students overrepresented; economically disadvantaged students are also uncommon at these schools.

So eliminating admissions tests seems like a major step toward increasing diversity. But often, it’s not good enough.

The scope of the problem is galling: For example, Thomas Jefferson High in Fairfax County is 68 percent Asian and 21 percent White, with less than 4 percent of students identifying as Black or Latino. In contrast, the district overall is 27 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Black, while Asian students make up 20 percent of the district, and Whites 37 percent. Kids in Fairfax County are 15 times as likely to be eligible for a free or reduced-price school lunch as Thomas Jefferson students. In New York City, 65 percent of public school kindergartners are Black or Latino, but just 18 percent of those offered a spot in a gifted and talented program are from those groups. And students in San Francisco’s public schools are more than twice as likely to be Black or Latino as students at Lowell High. In some cases, the disparities are still worsening. The NAACP has argued in federal civil rights complaints in Virginia and New York that admission to specialized schools racially discriminates against Black and Latino youth.

Thomas Jefferson High School is now adopting a holistic admissions policy, but it’s unclear that this will lead to more equitable outcomes. This method often ends up helping well-off families that can dole out cash for music lessons, sports coaching and other activities. In the United States, upper-middle-class parents spend substantially more than working-class parents on extracurricular activities for their children, and the gap has been growing since the 1970s. Parents whose incomes place them in the bottom fifth of earners spend just 20 percent of what families in the third income quintile spend, and vastly less than those in the top fifth of incomes. The New York Times podcast “Nice White Parents” illustrates this divide through a heartbreaking account of a conversation among New York City families of vastly different means: The wealthier parents described helping their children prepare for middle school auditions and sending them to school sick so they would maintain perfect attendance, among other tactics, to craft the ideal middle school application. The lower-income parents, meanwhile, didn’t know about such strategies and lacked the money to make such preparation possible.

Holistic admissions can increase educational access, as when universities use it to implement affirmative action for Black, Latino and Native American applicants — but when colleges first adopted this process, it served a nefarious purpose: the exclusion of Jewish applicants. During the early 20th century, Ivy League schools fretted about the growing number of Jewish students being admitted based on their entrance exam scores. As a result, they began asking applicants to demonstrate their “character” through teacher recommendations, essays, interviews and other criteria. These data points allowed admissions officers to pick students based on whatever qualities they deemed the best “fit.” 

A system with entry based on teacher recommendations, such as the temporary plan for New York City’s gifted and talented programs, is no better: Research shows that teachers hold racial biases in their evaluations of Black and Latino students. A study by sociologist Yasmiyn Irizarry, for example, found that teachers rated students of color with above-average literacy skills (as measured by a test not seen by the teacher) as having weaker skills than White students with similar competency. Another study, which I conducted along with three colleagues at Princeton University, found that more than three-quarters of teachers exhibit anti-Black, pro-White implicit racial bias.

Standardized testing is far from a neutral measure of academic ability or achievement. The history of educational exams is tied to the history of eugenics, with early psychologists designing tests as a way to try to prove the “inferiority” of non-White races. And with so much at stake, savvy parents try to game them. In New York City, many White parents feel obligated to pay for test preparation for their preschoolers. In San Francisco and New York, many Chinese American kids attend “cram” schools to prepare for ninth-grade entrance exams, making them overrepresented at the elite schools in those cities.

And yet, at times, standardized tests have been used to broaden, rather than narrow, access to educational opportunity. Ivy League universities began inviting high school boys around the country to take their entrance exams as a way of identifying talents beyond the usual pool of students from Northeast boarding schools, and in doing so, expanded access (even if only for White men). In 2002, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act mandated that schools break down scores by race, English-language-learner status, income level and disability status — to pressure districts to address unequal education within schools. This was an (admittedly flawed) attempt to use standardized testing to open access for marginalized groups.  

Ending standardized testing is not a panacea for racial and class inequity in school admissions. High-stakes exams do systematically exclude working-class, poor, Black and Latino kids from selective schools — but the admissions metrics that replace them will be more equitable only if school systems ask the right questions. Most promising are the changes at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, which will admit students via random lottery, and at Boston’s exam schools, which will admit students based on academic rank within their Zip code, ensuring that the schools will draw from the city at large, not just privileged neighborhoods. But perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is: Doesn’t every child deserve an outstanding educational experience, no matter whether they can pass a test, master an instrument or otherwise demonstrate why they are more worthy than the next child?

Twitter: @nkwarikoo