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Attending top high schools comes with mixed results for students, new study finds

The researchers say negative and positive effects can be felt years later into the students’ careers

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Many parents consider high school to be an important stepping stone to their child’s future college and career achievements; that’s why many consumers want to ensure that their child’s place in a top school.

A group of researchers recently delved into this subject area, studying the outcomes of students who attend some of the “best” high schools. The researchers wanted to see what was more likely to affect a student -- a school that was comprised of children from affluent backgrounds or a school that was focused on high-achievement.

The researchers used data from Project TALENT -- a study that follows high school students nationwide for 50 years -- to see how the students’ choice of high school affected them throughout their lives.

“Above and beyond students’ individual capabilities and their family background, more selective schools provided both benefits and risks to students, which translated into real-world differences in their career years later,” said lead researcher Richard Göllner. “Specifically, being in a high school with a higher average socioeconomic background benefited students later on, whereas being in a school with a higher average achievement level harmed students later on.”

High achievement comes at a price

To get a strong assessment on the way the difference in high schools’ affected students later in life, the researchers analyzed data from nearly 400,000 students at over 1,200 schools across the country.

They assessed the students’ scores on standardized tests, their expectations for achievement, and their economic backgrounds.

The researchers found that students who attended schools that placed a greater emphasis on academic achievement were more likely to struggle later in life, compared with those who went to wealthier schools. Both 11 and 50 years after high school, these students were found to have lower incomes and lower educational and career achievement.

The exact opposite was true of students who attended more affluent schools. They pursued -- and earned -- more degrees in higher education, made more money, and landed careers that were more desired.

Managing expectations

The researchers believe this outcome is related to the students’ own expectations. Those in high-achieving environments are often comparing themselves to other students, which the researchers found can lead to lower expectations for themselves, as they’re always looking over their shoulders at their peers.

“The permanent comparison with high-achieving peers seemed to harm students’ beliefs in their own abilities and that was associated with serious consequences for their later careers,” said Göllner.

In future research, the scientists are hoping to explore the effects teachers can have on student-learning outcomes. Their goal is to foster a more supportive learning environment that puts an end to students comparing themselves to one another.

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