Not a single company submitted a bid to design a new entrance test for Boston’s prestigious exam schools earlier this year, leaving school officials scrambling to find a willing bidder as a May 15 deadline fast approaches.
The previous test, known as the Independent School Entrance Exam, was scrapped this year amid complaints that the test covers material that public school sixth-graders have not studied yet. Critics say the exam is biased against Black and Latino students and others who don’t have the resources to prepare.
But the Boston public schools’ nasty public split with the test maker, Educational Records Bureau, may be discouraging other companies from stepping forward to design a new test. The bureau announced in February that it was severing ties with the school district, its biggest client, accusing the district of misusing the exam results in a way that makes it harder for “underrepresented” students to gain entry to the exam schools. School officials countered that they were the ones who walked away in hopes of getting a more equitable test.
Boston Latin School, in particular, has struggled with low Black and Latino enrollment, while the other two schools — Boston Latin Academy and John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — have better diversity numbers.
Joshua Goodman, a Brandeis University economist, said the fraught politics surrounding the entrance test and a dearth of test makers able to fit Boston’s exam criteria might be hurdles for attracting a bidder.
"If you’re a company proposing that your exam be used, I don’t think you want to end up in a situation like the Independent School Entrance Exam folks did,'' Goodman said. “Some of these companies ... may wonder whether it’s worth the cost of potentially throwing oneself into a politically controversial arena.”
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in an interview she is confident a bidder will come forward by Friday, though it remains unclear why no one has stepped forward.
“I was very confident in the beginning and then COVID happened. This threw all of the economy and all of us for a [whirl],'' said Cassellius.
Thirty-one respondents initially expressed an interest in the district’s request for proposal earlier this year, filling out a Google form as a potential bidder, though no bid was submitted by the deadline March 19, two days after Boston schools initially shuttered, district officials said.
The district reissued a new request for proposals last month, highlighting the fact that it was seeking a test that was unbiased, aligns with state standards, and can be given remotely, if necessary.
This time, 21 organizations — including the Cognia Inc., the administrator of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or MCAS — self identified as potential bidders, according to Cassellius’s communications office. However, it’s unclear whether any of them have made a bid, something the superintendent’s office cannot legally reveal while bids are open.
If no bidders step forward by the deadline, the superintendent said the district will do its own internal assessment on the best steps forward.
Ideally, the exam school test should cover only subjects that students are learning in school, said Goodman, who co-wrote a 2018 Harvard report finding that the ISEE test — originally designed for private school admissions — blocked thousands of Black and Latino students seeking entrance to the selective exam schools.
He backs the MCAS, which he said aligns with the standards “that students in Boston public schools should be learning.”
Boston’s search for a test comes amid a variety of efforts aimed at increasing Black and Latino enrollment at the exam schools, Latin School in particular. Those initiatives include expanding the Exam School Initiative, a two-week test-prep offered in the summer, and offering the exam during school hours.
But those efforts have proved to be “anemic" in terms of increasing Black and Latin student invitations, said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director at Lawyers for Civil Rights.
New data shows that, although 32 percent of the students applying to enter the exam schools were Black, only 8 percent of invitations to Latin school went to Black students. Likewise, 36 percent of applicants were Latino, but they represented only 13 percent of students invited to the Latin School. Invitations to Latin Academy were also disproportionately given to white and Asian students, though O’Bryant’s invitations were more reflective of the diversity of the test takers.
Data also show that students with addresses in more affluent West Roxbury were just a small fraction of the exam school applicants, but they received a large swath of the invitations to Boston Latin. The opposite was true for students from Dorchester, the data shows.
Espinoza-Madrigal said the data shows that more investments are needed at every level of the exam school admissions process to ensure that Black students have a fair opportunity to compete and get in. That also includes closing a cultural gap among some families, particularly immigrant families, who may not know of the exam schools, what it takes to get in, or the life-changing opportunities the schools offer.
“The exam is a critical component that needs to be assessed and that needs to be aligned with the curriculum taught as BPS,'' Espinoza-Madrigal said. “But only focusing on the exam itself misses the mark, because there are many other opportunities that are missing students of color.”
Cassellius said she is not satisfied with the numbers, though she commended the district for making a strong commitment to remove racial barriers in the exam schools, including offering the test to all sixth-graders during the school day.
“This is our first year [of school-based test taking] and any time you have a first year of anything, it takes a while to get everything working just right,’’ Cassellius said. “But we were really pleased with [the] increases that we saw in participation. Now, that has to equate to kids actually getting invitations.”
In addition to implementing a new test, she said she plans to target low-performing schools in the district, press for high quality schools in every neighborhood, and improve teaching and curriculum. She said her administration now has the opportunity to assess and expand the programs “to reach even more kids so that they’re better prepared.
“The only way we’re going to really close gaps — and create high quality schools in every neighborhood — is by improving our teaching and learning overall,'' said Cassellius.