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Uncertainty looms over new exam schools test

BPS announces members of working group to make recommendations on admissions criteria

There are no traditional test prep materials for the new entrance exam to Boston Latin School and the city's other elite exam schools. 

 exterior  (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff). Topic:   ExamSchoolsRaceBLS  Reporter:  Meghan Irons
There are no traditional test prep materials for the new entrance exam to Boston Latin School and the city's other elite exam schools. exterior (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff). Topic: ExamSchoolsRaceBLS Reporter: Meghan IronsPat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

When Boston students begin next week’s boot camp to prepare to take the new entrance test for the city’s three elite exam schools, there will be no hardcover workbooks or practice questions from which to study.

That’s because the Boston public schools recently chose a new company to administer the high-stakes entrance exam and traditional study tools aren’t available.

As a result, students embarking on the two-week test prep course on Aug. 10 will be given a series of “time-using,” “error avoidance,” and “guessing” strategies to prepare for the new entrance exam to Boston Latin Academy, Boston Latin School, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science, according to district officials.


The test prep program, officially called the Exam School Initiative, will focus on “test wiseness,” and materials will be placed online for families to access, said Charles Grandson, the district’s chief equity and strategy officer.

But the lack of traditional prep material has created a dilemma for tutors and parents eager to help their children gain admission to the city’s premier public high schools.

“It’s just an impossible situation,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. “You can’t expect fair results from a test if the environment is skewed.”

The district will be using NWEA’s MAP growth assessment test, Grandson said.

District officials said the assessment reviews students’ understanding of the subject matter they have learned in class. They said NWEA has sample questions on its website, organized by grade and by subject, which are designed to familiarize students with the manner in which questions are presented, as well as its online testing platform.

The district said it is working with NWEA “to consider developing guides for students and families,” adding that the best test preparation is “daily attendance in school and learning grade-level reading and math.”


The test accounts for half of the exam schools’ admissions criteria. The other half is based on students’ grades. But with the test roughly three months away, confusion is rising over what will be on it and how to adequately prepare.

Private tutors, such as Anne Yount, said they are employing a series of strategies, including using study guides from the Independent School Entrance Exam workbooks, in the absence of other test prep materials. The school system is no longer using the ISEE test after an ugly and public split earlier this year.

“I am a detective—I have to go hunting around on websites, I have to click through links. I have to look at stuff that’s buried,” said Yount, founder of Boston Tutoring Center, whose specialty is preparing students for the exam schools. “I have to try to piece things together [to help prepare students]. I have to try to get people in BPS to answer my questions. It’s like pulling teeth.”

Meanwhile, some advocates have argued that the tests should be suspended altogether this year, given the haphazard state of education amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the pandemic has further exposed deep inequalities in the school system. Blacks represent just 8 percent of the student enrollment at Boston Latin School and Latino students are 14 percent, the district’s data show. Overall, Blacks and Latinos represent more than 70 percent of the school district’s student population of more than 53,000. Latin Academy and the O’Bryant have much larger percentages of Black and Latino students.


Espinoza-Madrigal said his organization is working with families who are having trouble paying the rent and buying groceries, let alone keeping up with academic and enrichment activities for their children.

“We are in the middle of a public health and racial justice pandemic,” he said. “So many families in our communities are experiencing food and housing insecurity. Many students don’t even have access to the Internet at home, let alone access to study materials and technology, which would allow them to prepare for an exam school test. It’s really shocking that BPS is acting like it’s business as usual.”

District officials, scrambling to complete a plan this month on safely reopen schools in the fall, attempted to inject a sense of urgency in the exam schools matter Saturday by announcing the formation of an eight-member working group, charged with making recommendations regarding the exams admissions criteria for students starting in September 2021.

The group will weigh the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on student learning, the district said.

The group, which will report back to Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, will explore whether to move forward with the NWEA exam or impose a moratorium on this year’s test, according to Sam Acevedo, executive director of the Boston Higher Education Resource Center, who is a member of the group.

Acevedo is also a co-chair of the Opportunity and Achievement Gaps Task Force, which recently recommended delaying the test this year after members expressed fear “that in the wake of this homebound COVID-19 education experiment this last spring,” it would be very difficult for any student to perform well on the high-stakes exam, he said.


The working group is expected to have its first meeting this week, said Acevedo.

The district signed a three-year, nearly $200,000 contract with NWEA recently. The superintendent has said the new test will be fair, untimed, and aligned with both the school system’s curriculum and state standards. It will also measure readiness for a rigorous high school curriculum.

Cassellius said she is looking forward to “a thoughtful and thorough discussion on exam school admissions with the goal of ensuring our Black and Brown students” have the same opportunity and access.

The working group’s other members are Michael Contompasis, a former Boston Latin School headmaster and former interim BPS superintendent; Matt Cregor, a civil rights attorney representing the NAACP; school leaders Tanya Freeman-Wisdom at the O’Bryant, Rachel Skerritt at Boston Latin School, and Katherine Grassa at Curley K-8 School; and parents Zena Lum and Acacia Aguirre. Monica Roberts, the district’s chief of student, family, and community advancement, will facilitate the group.

So, in the meantime, what will students learn during the Exam School Initiative held from Aug. 10-21?

According to the district, students will explore deductive reasoning strategies, including eliminating “options known to be incorrect,” working on understanding the purpose of any test, and learning about known idiosyncrasies of the test maker, such as avoiding options using words such as “always,” “all,” or “never.”


Grandson, the district’s chief equity officer, said 650 city students enrolled in this year’s all-virtual Exam School Initiative, which also had a session in July.

Last year, 775 students enrolled in the program.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.