On a Zoom call early last week, a Boston Public Schools task force focused on equity and opportunity unanimously voted to recommend suspending the city’s exam school admissions test this year because of the pandemic, which has disproportionately hurt Black and brown communities.
But two days later Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who joined a portion of the meeting and did not speak as the task force voted, announced plans to create and administer a new exam school test this fall.
“I feel disappointed and blindsided,‘' said Ayele Shakur, one of the cochairs of the task force. “Why would you rush to finalize a decision that we know is going to be really harmful and put loads of students at a disadvantage — in the midst of a pandemic?”
The task force’s mission is to help the district focus on closing the achievement gap for Black and brown students, who are often edged out of an entrance ticket into the exam schools, Boston Latin Academy, Boston Latin School, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.
The racial disparities perpetuated by the entrance exam are particularly stark at Latin School, where Black enrollment hovers around 8 percent, and Hispanic enrollment at 13 percent. The district’s overall enrollment is about 30 percent Black and 42 percent Hispanic. (The Black and Hispanic student population was 21 percent and nearly 26 percent respectively at Latin Academy; it was 33 percent for both groups at the O’Bryant).
Although the district has instituted reforms to improve access to the exam schools — such as expanding the summer test program and holding the test during the school day — advocates said the admissions system is stacked against students who come from struggling schools and families, who may not have money or time to invest in test preparation. The previous test has also been criticized for being biased and not aligning with district curriculum. Despite the improvements, this year’s invitations for Black students, particularly at Latin School, remain low.
The disruption created by the pandemic only makes it more difficult for some students and their families.
“Kids are literally doing homework in a closet, because they don’t have any room to study,” Shakur said. “Those are not normal conditions and we should not be treating it as such for taking a test.”
Cassellius, in an interview, said her decision to move forward with the selection of a test vendor was made before the task force issued its recommendation. She said the selection process had been in the works for months, but it was delayed by the outbreak of COVID-19 and hurried school closings.
The new vendor, NWEA, will administer a new test this fall.
She said the district had planned to announce the new vendor on June 17, but that, too, got pushed back. Her office revealed its decision to pick NWEA as the vendor in a press release at 6:01 p.m. July 2, on the cusp of a long holiday weekend.
“It was just that the decision was made and it was time to announce,‘' said Cassellius. “We had school starting. The [Exam School Initiative] was starting. Parents obviously want to be able to know what the test was. They’ve been pressuring us to know what the test was this entire time.”
She said the new test promises to be fairer: It is untimed, has a strong anti-bias base, and is in line with state standards, she said, addressing several of the most significant concerns critics of the old test flagged.
But the Rev. Willie Bodrick, a task force member and chairman of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement, said he hopes the superintendent changes course and adheres to the task force’s demands to suspend the test this year. The extra time could be spent on “reimagining what that looks like and what it means for all children to have an equitable opportunity in the city’s schools,” he said. He said the task force will present its recommendation to the School Committee later this month.
The Opportunity and Achievement Gaps Task Force drafted the district’s achievement gap policy in 2016 and serves as a monitoring body that recommends solutions and policy changes to the district.
“Our job is to hold the district accountable to make sure that each and every child gets the opportunities to get the education they need, but when there are inequities, we call them out,‘' said Bodrick.
After a four month delay because of the pandemic, nine members of the task force — moved by the eruption of protests over police killings, the toppling of Confederate and other statues, and an outpouring of support for racial justice — had a Zoom meeting on June 30. Cassellius and members of her staff also attended the two-hour meeting, which included a presentation by one of the administrators on the exam school process.
After the presentation, Shakur said, she asked the district officials if a new test vendor has been selected and was told no. She then filed a motion to temporarily scrap the test, and a discussion soon followed.
“What emboldened me to put the motion on the floor was the fact that no vendor had been selected,‘' said Shakur. “So if this train has not left the station, [then] stop the train?”
A video of the meeting shows Shakur making the case that many Black students are especially traumatized because of the pandemic.
”We know who is suffering the most,‘' she said in the video. “It’s not the one with the huge backyards.”
No one from the district indicated there was a problem with the recommendation and no one mentioned that selection of a test vendor was imminent, she said. Shakur said she only realized it when she saw the press release announcing NWEA as the test vendor.
“This is basically saying we’re not even going to respect or consider that recommendation. That to me speaks to the systemic structural racism that it does not change easily,‘' said Shakur.
The Bay State Banner first reported on the task force’s recommendation.
NWEA, an Oregon-based company, was one of three companies that competed for the three-year contract after the district had an ugly public separation from the previous vendor. The School Department could not immediately say how much the new contract is worth.
Asked why she did not inform the group that the selection of a vendor was imminent, Cassellius noted she typically doesn’t attend the task force’s meetings and had no prior knowledge that the topic was going be on the agenda or discussed.
“I wasn’t prepared to comment on it at all,‘' she added. “And we were still finalizing all our [request for proposals] and getting everything done and getting the press release [ready].”