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What exam schools can’t do

For certain sets of Bostonians — the immigrant who hopes his children have it better; the single mother who wishes the same; and the high-earning parents who got married and had kids and decided, despite the suburbs’ pull, to enroll their children in the Boston Public Schools system — these are anxious days. The admittance tests for Boston’s exam schools are next month, Nov. 5, to be exact. Blinking Web pages are dedicated to the date, replete with hyperlinks where a New York preparatory outfit called ERB offers study guides for a mere $15 a pop, guides that carry the matter-of-fact yet calming title of “What to Expect.”

In Boston, as in many American cities, the top public school is an exam school. Acceptance into one of the three elite outfits here — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — assumes a different life trajectory for the talented middle schooler. An exam school education, the thinking goes, offers a more meaningful, rigorous education, opening the doors of elite universities and rewarding careers thereafter. Miss the cutoff for an exam school, and the fear is that you miss out on the life it promises.

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