Op-Ed STEM programs should be inclusive

by Dan Rosner

The Highline School Distict's Raisbeck Aviation High School in Tukwilla, a national leader in STEM-based education, recently admitted 105 students to their class of 2018 from a pool of 325 applicants. Statistical analysis of their admissions data show that students who self-identified as caucasian on the school's application form were significantly more likely to be selected for admission. Moreover, the youngest children applying were least likely to be chosen while 10% of those admitted were old enough to sit in the next higher grade.

Taken together, these data demonstrate that relatively older, white children have a huge advantage with regard to gaining access to the school. Overall, 39% of white children applying were admitted compared to a 25% acceptance rate for students of color. Only 3 of the 29 nonwhite boys in the youngest age quartile were admitted. I would not advocate affirmative action but these outcomes seem hard to justify when 15 of the 26 oldest white girls applying to the school were chosen. Publicly funded STEM programs should be more inclusive.

Just as a well-known relative age effect biases the selection of children for elite sport leagues, access to the Highline District's Raisbeck Aviation High School is largely influenced by the relative age and ethnicity of their applicants. It is a selection process where the deck is stacked in favor of older, white children at the expense of everyone else.

Now you could say to yourself, “So What?” Shouldn't we live in a meritocracy and shouldn't great schools take only the very best students, even if they're mostly older and white?

One problem with this premise is there exists little objective evidence that the children competitive secondary schools select have the greatest long-term potential. No one really knows where the next Boeing or Goddard will come from, or who ultimately will contribute more to the common good of society. But there's ample evidence that a child's life can be transformed by the schools they attend.

Another problem with selective admissions is that bias can creep in unintentionally anywhere it is used. Does this mean we should throw up our hands and toss out all selective processes for things like college and hiring? I don't think that's a position many people would embrace. Yet where younger children are concerned selective admissions are not as equitable or efficient simply because children are not adults. Not only could we be missing some of the best and the brightest, we might inadvertently be harming children as well.

Access to many excellent public magnet schools such as the Tacoma School District's Science and Math Institute and the Lake Washington School District's International Community School in Kirkland, ranked the best high school in Washington State in the national media, is granted by a lottery process. In fairness to all who apply, administrators at these schools do not subjectively decide which students to admit based on who they feel are the most promising or passionate about their programs. Student achievement nonetheless has been fantastic and the diversity of students reflect that of their greater community. Clearly, relatively younger and nonwhite children need not be systematically excluded for an educational program to be successful.

Equality and opportunity are two big issues of our times. Thinking about how children gain access to taxpayer funded STEM programs is important because education is the ticket to success in life. Exposing young men and women to diverse classmates and role models raises the ceiling on what is possible for everyone. Until that happens, the sky is NOT the limit for children applying to places like the Highline School District's Raisbeck Aviation High School. It is their relative age and ethnicity!

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