It is the most polarizing issue in Boston education policy: Should the district change admission requirements at its prestigious exam schools to achieve a more equitable racial mix?
The answer is a resounding yes.
But as the Globe education team reported last Sunday, a consistent lack of political will during the last two decades has impeded progress toward equity at Boston Latin School, the district’s crown jewel and a gateway to opportunity for generations of Boston’s brightest kids. Some call Boston Latin the city’s most “sacred cow,” and fear any change at BLS would enrage “powerful and politically connected voting constituencies,” such as private school parents and alumni of the school.
But the ethnic and racial disparities at the school have become indefensible. District-wide, Blacks represent 33 percent and Latinos about 42 percent of students. At Boston Latin School, though, Black enrollment accounts for roughly 8 percent of the school’s student body, while Latinos are 13 percent. The city’s other two exam schools also register racial and ethnic gaps, although they’re not as glaring.
The admission process seems, on its face, like it’s straightforward and fair. It consists of two parts, each with the same weight: a student’s grades and their score on the Independent School Entrance Exam, which students take in the sixth grade.
In theory, tests level the playing field. But the ISEE has been blamed for the persistent inequities in exam schools. Blacks and Latinos take the test at lower rates, and also do worse. That’s partly because the ISEE includes academic material that isn’t aligned with the public school curriculum, such as questions that require understanding algebra concepts that aren’t taught by the start of sixth grade in public school classrooms. Even if you believe that BPS should start teaching algebra sooner, it’s only fair that students be tested on concepts that they’re actually taught.
Earlier this year, the company that makes the ISEE ended its contract with Boston, saying it had warned Boston school officials for years that the way the district was using test results was unfavorable for students from underrepresented groups. The district disputed the company’s allegations and argued it was BPS that had decided to stop using the ISEE in favor of a better test “that would expand equitable access," according to a statement from Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that a different test will suddenly yield diversity at BLS. It’s not just the reliance on the ISEE that’s problematic about the admission process at exam schools — it’s the use of students’ grades. Public school students are at a disadvantage when it comes to their grades, but not because their academic performance is weaker. For one thing, BPS uses a slightly different grading system than most private and parochial schools, which may make public school students look worse than private school kids with similar achievement. Then there’s the “undeniable presence of grade inflation in parochial and private schools,” as a group of advocates characterized it last year.
Considering the inflated grades at private schools and the importance of grades in admissions, it’s no surprise that students from private and parochial schools are over-represented at Boston Latin. Last year, about a third of students invited to BLS came from private schools — even though only 11 percent of kids in Boston attend these schools. In the previous school year, students from both private and parochial schools accounted for half of those admitted to BLS.
When Carol Johnson was Boston Public Schools superintendent, she attempted to change the admission requirements to include other factors, like teacher recommendations, but the effort went nowhere. More recently, the local branch of the NAACP, Lawyers for Civil Rights, and other education groups have pushed Mayor Marty Walsh and the district for change. For instance, last summer, as Cassellius was poised to assume her role as superintendent, the groups sent her, Walsh, and the School Committee a letter demanding an overhaul of the admission process at the exam schools. “[T]here are many alternative admissions policies that would support a high-performing student body while resulting in a less discriminatory impact,” they wrote.
Options to reduce the advantage for private and parochial students include getting rid of independent testing as a factor for admission and instead using the state’s MCAS; giving BPS students an advantage over kids from private and parochial schools or setting aside a number of BLS seats for BPS kids; or considering family income/zip code in admissions decisions.
And yet Cassellius has said that, other than a different test, nothing else is on the table. “I am not looking at a new formula,” she told Globe education reporters. She said she wants to assess the impact of a new test and avoid “wholesale change.” With so much evidence of existing bias and fairer alternatives to admit students, her comments are baffling and disappointing. Tinkering around the edges will not yield much-needed progress toward equity in a city where all schools — not just its crown jewels — are becoming more segregated. Diversifying BLS is an issue of basic fairness and will require loads of political will. It should be a priority for Cassellius.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.