Less Qualified and Less Diverse: Race-Neutral Affirmative Action Hurts Chicago’s Exam Schools

Selective admissions high schools, or exam schools, have long been at the center of education policy debates due to their struggles in balancing fair enrollment and improving diversity. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Parents v. Seattle and Meredith v. Jefferson that using race as an admissions requirement is unconstitutional if it is not sufficiently “narrowly tailored” to achieve racial diversity. Many school districts, including Chicago, have since abolished race-based affirmative action in exam school admissions. In 2010, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) replaced racial quotas with a new place-based affirmative action policy, where disadvantage is measured by neighborhood characteristics. Each of Chicago’s 77 community areas is assigned to one of four socioeconomic tiers. Schools first fill 30 percent of their slots with the top performing applicants; the remaining 70 percent are evenly divided between applicants across the four tiers. 

There are three major efficiency concerns with the new race-neutral policy: racial integration, socioeconomic diversity, and student qualification. To study how well the new policy addresses them, Ellison and Pathak focused on Northside Prep and Walter Payton—Chicago’s two flagship exam schools—using CPS data from the 2013–2014 academic year. Under the new policy, the fraction of black students admitted to Walter Payton was cut nearly in half. The number of Hispanic students admitted, as well as low-income students eligible for free or subsidized lunch, also declined. While there were small gains in diversity at Northside, the average student score dropped. Furthermore, within-school variation in scores increased for both schools. In other words, schools have to accommodate students with more disparate levels of ability and preparation. If elite schools are designed for the most advanced students, within-school variation reduces this potential benefit and defeats the purpose of exam schools.

Another concern with affirmative action is that it reinforces stereotypes by contributing to the within-school achievement gap. Whether place-based affirmative action affects the achievement gap is not clear. On the one hand, exam schools now admit more low-scoring White and Asian students living in low-socioeconomic status neighborhoods. On the other hand, some high-performing minority students are denied admission and almost all the lowest-scoring admits are minorities. Ellison and Pathak find that, for both Walter Payton and Northside, the latter force dominates the former. At Northside, place-based affirmative action almost doubled the magnitude of the achievement gap between racial majority and minority.

One major drawback of the CPS policy is its sole reliance on census tract level data, which do not completely predict individual applicants’ socioeconomic and minority status. For example, home ownership is one of the six variables that CPS uses to assign the census tracts into tiers. If the policy seeks to increase minority representation, home ownership rate should be negatively correlated to the applicant’s minority status. However, for Walter Payton and Northside applicants, it is the opposite. Chicago’s affluent areas, including the Loop and Lakeview, have mostly rental housing, while home ownership is high in many black, middle-class neighborhoods. Therefore, inclusion of the home ownership variable may in fact disadvantage minority students.

One way to increase both the minority and low-income student representation is adding individual-level data. Under the current policy, a lower-income student receives no advantage relative to other students from her census tract. Ellison and Pathak propose incorporating eligibility of free or reduced lunch. Another approach is to abolish the tier system, and instead admit students based on their test scores adjusted with a disadvantage bonus to improve the overall efficiency.

One of the designers of the current CPS policy told The Atlantic in a 2014 interview that this plan offers a creative example of how to promote racial diversity at selective schools without explicitly using race as a factor. However, research shows that while CPS’s race-neutral affirmative action is based on socioeconomic status, it fails to increase the number of low-income students. It also fails to increase racial diversity and the average score of admitted students, and it increases the within-school achievement gap. Exam schools offer students the advanced education and college preparation that would otherwise only be available to their higher-income peers attending private schools. For Chicago, where people are deeply divided by race and social class, making sure that its flagship schools narrow this gap needs to rise higher in the city’s policy priorities.

Article source: Ellison, Glenn and Parag A. Pathak. “The Efficiency of Race-Neutral Alternatives to Race-Based Affirmative Action: Evidence from Chicago’s Exam Schools.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 22589, 2016.

Featured image: cc/(stevegeer, photo ID: 471192205, from iStock by Getty Images)

Xiner Xu
Xiner Xu is a staff writer for Child & Family. She is interested in behavioral economics, immigration policy, and post-secondary education in a comparative international context.

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