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The Great Divide

The ‘sacred cow’ of Boston’s education landscape

Kaya Bos is a recent graduate of Boston Latin School who now attends Harvard.
Kaya Bos is a recent graduate of Boston Latin School who now attends Harvard.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

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Former Boston school superintendent Tommy Chang learned the hard way.

Alarmed by the low number of Black and Latino students at the city’s celebrated exam schools, Chang appointed an advisory committee to figure out how to increase diversity after he took the helm in 2015.

The panel met about a half dozen times in 2016. But when Mayor Martin J. Walsh learned of its existence through a Boston Globe article in July 2016, he immediately ended it, saying the district should focus instead on giving students of color access to more rigorous coursework.

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“The mayor said this whole thing was being shut down,” said Matt Cregor, a civil rights attorney on the panel. “He was already running for reelection and this clearly did not align with his priorities."

Walsh’s spokeswoman challenged that assessment, saying the mayor was concerned the process lacked “critical engagement with the community.”

The committee never met again.

Call it Boston’s untouchable issue. For 20 years, every effort — and there have been many — to even tweak the admissions process for Boston Latin School and the other exam schools has been swiftly quashed.

The current process, which judges applicants half on grades and half on test scores, has worked well for many private school families, whose children win spots at Boston Latin School at much higher rates than public school students. And it’s worked for families who can afford to hire tutors for the test. Yet it hasn’t worked for hundreds of Black and Latino students, whose numbers at BLS plummeted after a federal court decreed in 1998 that Boston’s use of race in exam school admissions was unconstitutional.

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But for the first time in two decades, change — at least to the admissions test — is likely afoot. And some say it’s time to rethink the admissions formula in a much bigger way — with an eye toward restoring diversity at Boston Latin, in particular. Black enrollment at the school hovers around 8 percent, and Hispanic enrollment, 13 percent. By contrast, Black students number 30 percent of the public school system, and Hispanic students, 42 percent. Meanwhile, Asian students are significantly overrepresented at Boston Latin.

During a public spat earlier this month between Boston and its test vendor, both sides announced they would likely cease working together. The district last week released a request for proposals to replace the test, the Independent School Entrance Exam, before the next test in November for the city’s three exam schools — Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. The ISEE is not aligned with state standards and it tests for topics — like some algebra skills — that most Boston public school students taking the test haven’t yet been taught.

“The fact that Boston Latin School has such disproportionate racial representation as compared to the city’s population tells you the problem,” said Lori Smith Britton, a 1988 graduate whose daughter graduated from the school in 2018. “The problem is not that Black and Latino kids lack capacity to do the work. It’s about a test and an admissions process that lacks equity.”

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The NAACP and Lawyers for Civil Rights are calling on the district not only to immediately cease reliance on the ISEE, including for admissions offers going out this spring, but to consider a more substantial overhaul of the process. Tanisha Sullivan, the local NAACP’s president, said that based on a series of recent forums, the group recommended possibilities such as granting admissions to the top students from every Boston elementary school (the exam schools start in seventh grade) or designing a system that would ensure more equal representation across Boston’s ZIP codes.

A revamped process would provide more “equitable access for Black, Latinx, and low-income students into our exam schools,” Sullivan said.

A few other cities have experimented in recent years with creative ways to ensure more diversity at their academically selective schools. In Chicago, for instance, the city school system, like Boston’s, weighs applicant test scores and grades. But it also takes socioeconomics into account — considering such factors as median family income and the percentage of non-English speakers in a student’s home neighborhood.

Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius acknowledged in a recent interview that the student population at Boston’s exam schools should become “more representative of the district.” But she said that a broader reconsideration of the admissions formula is off the table, at least for now. “I am not looking at a new formula,” she said, adding that she prefers to assess the impact of a new test — and avoid “wholesale change.”

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Political history has not looked kindly on those who support major change to the exam school admission process — particularly change that would significantly decrease white, middle-class, or private school representation at Latin School. (Last year, one-third of students “invited” to attend Latin were from private schools, although only about 11 percent of Boston’s school-age children attend these schools.)

The oldest public school in America — with alumni including Declaration of Independence signer Samuel Adams and conductor Leonard Bernstein — Boston Latin boasts an endowment of more than $59 million through its alumni association. Ninety-five percent of BLS graduates attend four-year colleges, compared to 48 percent of students districtwide.

Then-superintendent candidate Thomas Payzant at his home in 1995.
Then-superintendent candidate Thomas Payzant at his home in 1995.KIM, YUNGHI GLOBE STAFF PHOTO

When the exam school admissions formula was up for debate more than two decades ago in the wake of the federal court ruling, then-superintendent Thomas Payzant weighed nine alternatives — everything from a partial lottery system to considering family income in admissions decisions. (Payzant eventually, in 1999, recommended to the School Committee to rank applicants based on test scores and grades.)

Michael Contompasis, the district’s chief operating officer at the time and a longtime Latin School headmaster, said he urged city officials to consider giving public school students an advantage over children applying from private and parochial schools. “My head was pretty much served to me in a platter,” Contompasis said in a recent interview.

Boston was not ready for such a drastic change, said Jerry Burrell, the district’s former director of enrollment, who was involved in those discussions. It was clear “the idea was shot down for political reasons,” Burrell said.

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About 10 years later, then-superintendent Carol Johnson instructed the district’s director of data and accountability, Kamal Chavda, to investigate ways to revamp the admissions process, according to a recent interview with Chavda.

Then-superintendent Carol R. Johnson at a meeting in 2011.
Then-superintendent Carol R. Johnson at a meeting in 2011.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

At the time, Johnson’s team studied the grades submitted by students from Catholic schools applying to the exam schools and determined there was “probably” grade inflation, according to Burrell. Concerned that could give parochial students an unfair advantage, Johnson’s administration considered alternatives that included basing admissions solely on test scores, or factoring in teacher recommendations.

None of it went anywhere.

Longtime observers and former leaders of Boston’s public schools say there’s a reason. Change would have enraged some powerful and politically connected voting constituencies, including private school parents and exam school alumni.

“Elected officials and city councilors respond to parent groups that are perceived as having greater power, such as parents in West Roxbury,” said the Rev. Gregory Groover, who served on the School Committee between 2007 and 2014, including a stint as chairman.

West Roxbury, which is 73 percent white, has the highest percentage of students at Boston Latin of any city neighborhood. In 2019, nearly 20 percent of Boston Latin students were from West Roxbury, compared to 3 percent from Roxbury and 0.7 percent from Mattapan, both predominantly Black neighborhoods. About 4 percent of the school’s students were from East Boston, a predominantly Latino neighborhood.

Some Latin School parents have long resisted any change to the admissions process because it could dilute the perceived “academic quality” of the school, said Susan Naimark, a School Committee member from 1997 to 2005, whose two children graduated from the school nearly two decades ago. “They want their kids to be among the top performers,” said Naimark.

Lew Finfer, codirector of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, lobbied four different superintendents to change the exam school admissions policy. He puts it bluntly: “Boston Latin is a sacred cow.”

But that didn’t stop Chang from wading into the issue about four years ago and encouraging the advisory committee to figure out how to increase Black and Latino representation at the exam schools.

Chang was particularly interested in how to increase racial diversity while abiding by the court decree that race cannot be used as an explicit factor in admissions decisions, said Cregor, the attorney on the committee.

After Walsh killed the committee, the relationship between him and Chang grew increasingly strained. “What I learned was that [making] a change at [Latin School] was not something I was going to be able to do,” Chang said in a recent interview. When Chang resigned in 2018, Walsh issued a public statement expressing his displeasure with the school chief’s record.

Then-superintendent Tommy Chang in 2016.
Then-superintendent Tommy Chang in 2016.Pat Greenhouse

Given the pushback superintendents have faced for trying to shake up the exam school admissions process, Cassellius might be politically shrewd for taking a slow approach, said Naimark.

“Any superintendent is going to have trouble tackling Boston Latin,” she said. “You have to pick your battles.”

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Cities across the country have grappled in recent decades with how to balance diversity with high standards at their academically selective public schools. “Everybody that has an exam school has to come up with a rationing system,’’ said Chester E. Finn Jr., coauthor of “Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools.” With fewer than 200 such schools nationwide, he said, many concentrated in large cities, the demand far exceeds the number of classroom seats. “There is no ‘right’ way to do” the rationing,” Finn said.

New York City has for decades relied solely on applicants’ scores on a single exam, the Specialized High School Admissions Test. That has resulted in elite schools that are even less diverse than Boston’s: Last year, just seven of the nearly 900 students offered admission at New York’s most selective high school were Black.

Much like in Boston, however, changing New York’s status quo is politically thorny. In 2018, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed basing admissions on students’ middle school class rank and their scores on state standardized tests. “It became very controversial very quickly,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “And he’s backed down from the conflict.”

Change for the most elite schools in New York would also require action by the state Legislature, which created the current system decades ago “as a political bow to constituents who worry about minorities taking over the crown jewel of the school system,” Bloomfield said. “It was a fortress mentality to protect academic privilege.”

Alternatives to the rank-order metrics used in Boston and New York have pros and cons. Finn, president emeritus at the Fordham Institute, argues for what he calls a “holistic approach” to exam school admissions that includes essays, interviews, and teacher recommendations, something more akin to most selective colleges’ admissions practices.

But Cassellius, Boston’s superintendent, countered that “interviews are more subjective” than data points such as test scores and grade point averages.

Boston Public Schools superintendent Brenda Cassellius.
Boston Public Schools superintendent Brenda Cassellius.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Chicago has done better than many cities with exam school diversity. “Only in Chicago are the [selective high schools] close to being representative of the city as a whole, in terms of both race and economic disadvantage,” the Brookings Institution said in a 2019 study, which examined eight cities, including Boston.

Similar to Boston, each applicant gets a score based on a combination of test scores and grades. But in Chicago, the city’s census tracts are also divided into four tiers based on a combination of income, adult education attainment, percent of owner-occupied homes, and other indicators. Thirty percent of the seats at selective high schools go to the students with the top scores, regardless of where they live. But the remaining seats are divided evenly among the top scorers from each of the four tiers.

“Chicago is really the exemplar in terms of selective schools using socioeconomic status in admissions decisions,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who helped devise the city’s admissions system. The process is not without weaknesses, however. One concern has been that relatively wealthy students from low-income neighborhoods can appear in the admissions process to be much more disadvantaged than they really are.

And, of course, income diversity cannot always be used as a proxy for racial diversity. “We are all hemmed in by the Supreme Court because we can’t name race as a factor” in admissions, said Bloomfield.

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Instead of upending the admissions process, Cassellius has set two main strategies: First, she wants a new test that better measures “students’ knowledge and skills” than the ISEE. The Educational Records Bureau, which produces the ISEE, won the last three contracts despite failing to show that the test helped predict high school success for Black and Latino students.

Cassellius’ second strategy is to continue shoring up test preparation and access for Boston’s public school students. In 2017, the district expanded access to its two-week summer preparation program, called the Exam School Initiative (which, notably, private school students can also attend). Last summer, 775 students participated, up from 409 in 2014, district data show. That effort hasn’t led to a greater percentage of Black and Latino students enrolled in Boston Latin, however.

And last fall, for the first time, the district moved the test from a Saturday to a school day to provide all students with more easy access.

Walsh supports Cassellius’ approach. In a statement, his spokeswoman said her “work to improve access to Boston’s three exam schools is in stark contrast” to Chang’s because she has consistently sought broad public input. Cassellius "was chosen to lead Boston Public Schools because of her focus on equity and her proven track record of listening to everyone in the community,” the statement read.

But some wonder whether it’s enough.

“As long as you are playing around with standardized tests, people will learn to game the test,” said Bloomfield. “And people who learn how to game the test will sell secret sauce to families willing to pay.”

Kaya Bos, a Harvard University senior and Latin School alum, said she would like to see a new admissions formula — even one that might have prevented her from getting in 10 years ago. When Bos applied, she was studying at a Brookline elementary school through the Metco program, which sends Boston students of color to suburban public schools. She bought a test-prep book and studied on her own. “It felt even more intense than getting into Harvard,” she recalled.

At Boston Latin, Bos realized some students were groomed for the ISEE by their elementary schools while others got little help. “It wasn't really a fair judgment of how much the kids knew," she said.

Bos said officials should bite the political bullet, and devise a new system where the top students from each elementary school get admitted, or where Boston Public School applicants have some kind of priority.

“That spot may go to someone who didn’t have the opportunity to go to Brookline High School,” she said. “I think [that] may be fairer than what happened with me.”

Partial funding for this initiative is provided by the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based foundation that has made student success in high school and beyond a top priority. The Globe has complete editorial control over story selection, reporting, and editing.


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons. Sarah Carr is editor of the Globe's Great Divide team. She has covered education for 20 years, winning several national awards. Carr is the author of "Hope Against Hope," about New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina. You can reach her at sarah.carr@globe.com, or follow her on Twitter @sarah_e_carr.