The Elite Illusion: Achievement Effects at Boston and New York Exam Schools

Authors

  • Atila Abdulkadiroğlu,

    1. Dept. of Economics, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, U.S.A.; atila.abdulkadiroglu@duke.edu
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  • Joshua Angrist,

    1. Dept. of Economics, MIT, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02142, U.S.A. and NBER; angrist@mit.edu
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  • Parag Pathak

    1. Dept. of Economics, MIT, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02142, U.S.A. and NBER; ppathak@mit.edu
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    • Our thanks to Kamal Chavda, Jack Yessayan, and the Boston Public Schools; and to Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, Thomas Gold, Jesse Margolis, and the New York City Department of Education, for graciously sharing data. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of either the Boston Public Schools or the NYC Department of Education. We are grateful for comments from participants in the June 2010 Tel Aviv Frontiers in the Economics of Education conference, the Summer 2011 NBER Labor Studies workshop, and the December 2011 Hong Kong Human Capital Symposium. Thanks also go to Jonah Rockoff for comments and data on teacher tenure in NYC. We are also grateful to Daron Acemoglu, Gary Chamberlain, Yingying Dong, Guido Imbens, and especially to Glenn Ellison for helpful discussions. Alex Bartik, Weiwei Hu, and Miikka Rokkanen provided superb research assistance. We thank the Institute for Education Sciences for financial support under Grant R305A120269. Pathak also thanks the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, where parts of this work were completed, and the NSF for financial support; and Abdulkadiroglu acknowleges an NSF-CAREER award.


Abstract

Parents gauge school quality in part by the level of student achievement and a school's racial and socioeconomic mix. The importance of school characteristics in the housing market can be seen in the jump in house prices at school district boundaries where peer characteristics change. The question of whether schools with more attractive peers are really better in a value-added sense remains open, however. This paper uses a fuzzy regression-discontinuity design to evaluate the causal effects of peer characteristics. Our design exploits admissions cutoffs at Boston and New York City's heavily over-subscribed exam schools. Successful applicants near admissions cutoffs for the least selective of these schools move from schools with scores near the bottom of the state SAT score distribution to schools with scores near the median. Successful applicants near admissions cutoffs for the most selective of these schools move from above-average schools to schools with students whose scores fall in the extreme upper tail. Exam school students can also expect to study with fewer nonwhite classmates than unsuccessful applicants. Our estimates suggest that the marked changes in peer characteristics at exam school admissions cutoffs have little causal effect on test scores or college quality.

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