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The Great Divide

Feud between BPS and test maker continues with release of e-mails

Students walked past a mural at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, one of Boston's three exam schools.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

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The organization that administers the controversial admissions test to Boston’s exam schools released e-mails Thursday showing that it had prodded Boston Public Schools officials several years ago to collaborate on studies to gauge whether the test is used appropriately.

District officials fired back, accusing the organization of divulging only limited and “misleading” information.

The dispute between the Education Records Bureau and the district became public earlier this week, when the bureau’s president claimed in an e-mail to its other clients that the district has misused the test results for years, perpetuating admissions outcomes that disproportionately affect students belonging to underrepresented groups.”


Bureau officials said they decided to sever ties with the district — their largest client — nearly a year ago but school officials maintain they decided to walk away in search of a new vendor that could provide a more fair and equitable test.

The newly released e-mails, dating from 2012 and 2013, show that the former executive director of the records bureau e-mailed a Boston Public Schools admissions official appealing to the district to collaborate on research to determine whether high scores on the test are predictive of student success in high school.

Jerry Burrell, the director of admissions at the time, responded that he would put the question to the district’s research director.

The research director’s “bottom line,” Burrell said, would be whether the “research will be of benefit to the district.”

“If the answer is yes, he’ll usually let it go forward,” he said.

But nothing ever happened, according to bureau officials, who shared five e-mails with the Globe.


Burrell, reached by phone Thursday, said he remembered the e-mail exchange with the bureau and said he had discussions “with ERB about doing a validity study that was going to be for their use.”

“It was pretty clear what they were trying to do, and in my view certainly made plenty of sense, but it was not my decision to make,'' he recalled.

Boston school officials slammed the records bureau for what they said was distorting the district’s record on the issue.

“ERB has been used by BPS for over 20 years for exam school admissions and it is truly unfortunate that ERB has chosen to publicly issue misleading and selective information in an effort to defend their product,’’ said Superintendent Brenda Cassellius in a statement Thursday. “We have no record of ERB seeking to correct BPS’s use of their school entrance exam prior to 2019.”

With the dispute unfolding in the public eye, the NAACP and the Lawyers for Civil Rights have both called for an independent review of Boston public school officials’ handling of the matter.

The fairness of the admissions process to the three exam schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — has been a contentious subject in recent years. Several civil rights groups and community organizations have argued that the admissions process, based half on student grades and half on test scores, called the Independent School Entrance Exam, has disadvantaged low-income students, particularly Blacks and Latinos.


“The e-mails are more damning evidence appearing to confirm that [Education Records Bureau] has raised questions with BPS for many years about the validity of using the ISEE for exam school admissions,’’ said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers for Civil Rights. “In light of this latest disclosure, we renew our call for an independent investigation into this matter so that all the facts can be known.”

Cassellius, who became superintendent in July, has pledged repeatedly to find a new test that has been determined to be free of bias. Her administration said they expect to release a request for proposals next week.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.