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Boston parents square off over entrance exam proposal

Kristin Johnson of Boston (front) stood with other counter-protesters across the street from a rally outside of Boston Latin School that called for Boston schools to keep the entrance test in place for exam schools.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Save the test. End racism.

Those were the dueling messages traded Sunday by parents, alumni, and others who made clear where they stand on a controversial proposal to eliminate for the next school year the test students must pass to enter one of Boston’s three prestigious exam schools.

A working group appointed by School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius recommended this month suspending the test for the 2021-2022 school year for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group noted that the test would be difficult to administer safely during the pandemic under public health guidelines, and that the COVID-19 crisis has already made day-to-day life more difficult for families who are low-income, Black, or Latino.


The Boston School Committee is expected to vote on the proposal Wednesday afternoon.

Ahead of the vote, the proposal has sparked fierce debate. One one side are those who feel the exam is essential to ensure rigorous academic standards. On the other side are those who say the test is unfair to students of color and those who live in poorer neighborhoods.

The divide was evident outside Boston Latin School Sunday morning.

A group of Boston parents gathered in front of the school in the Longwood area to rally in favor of keeping an entrance exam. They held a variety of signs supporting the exam, such as “No Lottery Schools,” that contained the insignia of each of the three schools.

A smaller group stood across the street, holding signs saying that the tests, and other parts of the education system, support systemic racism. One sign noted that Boston public schools are 14 percent white, while Boston Latin School is 44 percent white and if the disparity was " . . . by chance?"


Sarah Zaphiris, a West Roxbury resident who attended Boston Latin School, came to the protest with a sign that said “Keep the test.” She has a son in ninth grade at the school and a daughter in sixth grade who is hoping to apply, she said.

Zaphiris said she was concerned about comparing grades from different schools — public, parochial, charter, and private, who might all evaluate students differently.

“If you go to grades only, as opposed to a test and grades, you go to one data point per kid," she said. “Grades really are apples to oranges.”

Zaphiris also said she was disappointed the working group’s process did not include more input from parents. And while the safety concerns are valid, she said, she did not see them as insurmountable. The College Board will soon administer the SATs in Boston high schools, she said, so why should the exam school tests be different?

“I hope we conveyed that there are a lot of parents who care about schools, and they would like to be listened to,” Zaphiris said.

A second protest at Boston Latin Academy scheduled for later Sunday morning failed to materialize. It was not immediately clear why Sunday evening.

Still, the debate has been playing out online as well: As of Sunday afternoon, a petition to suspend the entrance exams for one year had almost 5,000 signatures; a petition by Zaphiris on the same site to keep the test had just under 2,100.


Parents who oppose the test have said it exacerbates existing inequities. Families with more money can more easily devote resources to test prep courses and tutors, giving their children a leg up on the exam. With the coronavirus pandemic and related shutdowns, parents and guardians who were already facing financial hardship — or long work hours, or health struggles, or difficulty navigating the school bureaucracy — cannot do the same for their children.

More than 70 percent of students in Boston schools are Black and Latino, but the most sought-after exam school, Boston Latin School, is majority white and Asian. Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, more closely reflect district demographics.

Under the new proposal, 20 percent of exam school seats will go to applicants with the highest grades. The district will award the other 80 percent based on both grades and the ZIP code in which the student lives, with more seats going to neighborhoods that have the highest proportion of school-age children.

That would likely benefit some of the more than 12 percent of Boston children who live in the 02124 ZIP code in Dorchester, which covers the Ashmont, Lower Mills, Codman Square, and stretches toward Franklin Park.

Students from ZIP codes with lower median incomes would get the first pick in each round of school selection, based on their grade-point averages. The ZIP codes with the lowest median income in the city are in Roxbury.


The working group estimated that these changes would increase the share of Black, Latino, and multiracial students invited to the three exam schools — from 40 percent to 51 percent.

Boston school administrators were already tinkering with the way they administered the exam school tests before the pandemic struck. They had long been criticized for the previous test, the Independent School Entrance Exam, which covered material not taught as part of the Boston Public Schools curriculum. In July administrators chose a test created by Oregon-based nonprofit NWEA, which is untimed and measures student progress in math, reading, and language use.

Bianca Vázquez Toness and Jessica Rinaldi of the Globe staff contributed.

Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.