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Bidders step forward to design new entrance test for Boston exam schools

BPS looking for a test that gives a better chance to disadvantaged students

Three bidders are vying to design a new entrance test to replace the Independent School Entrance Exam.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It turns out second time’s the charm when it comes to finding a new entrance test for the city’s exam schools.

After failing to attract a single bid in its original call for proposals, Boston Public Schools has now attracted three bidders to design a new entrance test, which will be used to determine admission to the city’s three exam schools starting with the academic year that begins in the fall of 2021. School officials say they want a test that provides a more equal chance for disadvantaged and minority students.

“A new test is the next best step to removing barriers by providing a fairer test that is aligned to the Massachusetts state standards, and to ensure the test has been reviewed and validated for bias,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement to the Globe. “Boston Public Schools is committed to expanding access to our nation-leading exam schools for more of our students.”

More than 20 companies expressed initial interest during the second round of bidding, but only three ended up submitting proposals by the district’s Friday deadline: Strategic Measurement and Evaluation, NWEA, and Riverside Assessments.


The district began looking for a replacement to the Independent School Entrance Exam earlier this year following a public break with Educational Records Bureau, which had provided the entrance exam for decades.

For years, the district has drawn fire for its use of the ISEE test, which covers material not in the BPS curriculum and critics charge places Boston’s Black and Latino students at a disadvantage. Boston schools are more than 70 percent Black and Latino, but the most prestigious exam school, Boston Latin School, remains majority white and Asian. The other two, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, are more reflective of district demographics.


Those long-standing complaints gained significant traction last February when the Globe revealed that the test maker said it would end its relationship with the district, claiming Boston schools have misused exam results in a way that created barriers for disadvantaged students in the district.

Boston school officials fired back that they’d initiated the break in search of a better test.

Superintendent Cassellius, still in her first year with the district, said at the time that she had “often and publicly” said this was the last year of the contract.

“Almost immediately upon my arrival in Boston, it was brought to my attention that there were concerns that the ISEE test was potentially creating barriers for some students seeking admission to BPS’ exam schools, particularly underrepresented students,” she told the Globe at the time.

Joshua Goodman, an economist at Brandeis University who coauthored a 2018 report on inequalities in exam school admissions, said the old test identified high-achieving students, but left behind many of those those who show potential — a problem exacerbated when the test doesn’t align with school curriculum.

"I’d favor the use of admissions criteria that better balance current achievement levels with potential for learning,” said Goodman, who has argued the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System would be a more equitable admissions tool than the previous test.

Cassellius blamed the initial lack of bids on the global pandemic, which forced Boston schools to abruptly cancel in-person classes just a few days before the deadline.


Both rounds stressed that the new exam should be aligned with state curriculum and appropriate for a diverse student population. The second round required only that bidders submit test content. Other components, such as plans for paper- or computer-based tests, were preferred but not required.

District officials said the RFP did not include budget proposals, which will be decided separately. The Globe has reported that the district’s latest one-year testing contract with Educational Records Bureau was for about $600,000.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, welcomed the prospect of a new test, but said any new exam must track with BPS curriculum.

“It’s time for all our children, including Black and Latinx students, to see themselves reflected in Boston’s public exam schools,” he said, describing a system that automatically enrolls top students from schools across the district.

The bid schedule indicates district officials will review vendor demonstrations later this month and award the new contract in mid-July.

“We understand the urgency families feel and we will continue to keep them informed as we move forward," said Cassellius.

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.