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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Task force still undecided on use of test scores for admission to Boston exam schools

The Boston Latin School.
The Boston Latin School.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

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A Boston School Committee task force Thursday night again failed to reach consensus on the use of test scores in the admission process to the city’s exam schools, even as more members appear to be moving toward preserving some kind of role for an entrance exam.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is whether all applicants should be required to take an entrance exam to safeguard against grade inflation or whether the use of test scores should be optional. The latter recognizes that many disadvantaged students don’t have access to test-prep consultants and research that has shown racial bias in standardized testing, among other factors.

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Making test scores optional would also mirror a movement in higher education where many institutions have dropped SAT testing requirements.

“My main concern is for a student having a bad day,” said Acacia Aguirre, a parent at the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, one of the three exam schools. “Using a one shot exam for getting someone in or out of [the eligibility admission] pool worries me.”

But Tanya Freeman-Wisdom, head of the O’Bryant School, views test scores as a critical measure to ensure that applicants are ready for a rigorous college-preparatory program.

“I wouldn’t use the grades alone,” she said. “I do feel every student should have to take assessments so grades submitted would be verified.”

The task force, which is racing to present final recommendations to the School Committee June 30, had hoped to resolve the testing question Thursday, after failing to reach agreement last week. But after more than two hours of debate, the group remained deeply divided over whether applicants to the O’Bryant, Boston Latin School, and Boston Latin Academy would need to take a test.

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In an effort to reach compromise, members were debating a variety of proposals that would potentially use test scores as part of the process to determine which applicants meet the admissions criteria. But in a sharp departure from the way seats have been historically filled, test scores would not determine which exam school applicants would be admitted to.

Under the current policy the task force is trying to change, test scores and grades have equal weight in determining school assignments, which are allocated in rank order, starting with the applicant who has the highest combined results.

Task force members went back and forth over using MCAS scores or another standardized test, NWEA MAP Growth, which the Boston school system uses to evaluate whether students are at grade level and their academic growth. The NWEA test, under various proposals, would also be administered separately for non-BPS applicants.

But disagreement persisted over whether students should have the option of only using their GPAs without having to rely on any test scores. That approach would mirror a temporary plan the school system used for admission to the exam schools this fall because the pandemic prevented the in-person entrance exam to be administered last year.

Applicants could use MCAS scores of meets or exceeds expectations or grades of a B or better to qualify for the admission pool. Seats were then allocated based only on grades and, in most cases, by a student’s ZIP code. As a result, a more diverse group of students was admitted to the exam schools. Rosann Tung, an education researcher and former BPS parent, cited the results from the temporary plan as evidence that test scores were unnecessary.

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“We know from this year that GPA, which we all agree means doing grade level work, gave us a good pool,” she said. “It helped us meet our charge.”

The task force’s charge is to increase the geographical, socioeconomic, and racial diversity of applicants who get accepted to the exam schools while also making sure they have a strong academic foundation to handle rigorous coursework.

Tung made clear that she would not support any proposal that mandates students taking an exam. “I’m not going to change my mind,” she said.

Michael Contompasis, a former Boston superintendent who co-chairs the task force, repeatedly said he wanted every applicant to take an exam. However, he said he was open to creating a process in which high-achieving students with low test scores could file an appeal to have the test scores waived with a letter from a teacher or another educator verifying their qualifications.

Rachel Skerritt, head of Boston Latin School, expressed concern that an appeal process could give teachers who are potentially grading students too generously even more power in admission process.

“I don’t understand how ... we’re asking the same signers of those grades to be the determinant of whether someone enters the pool,” she said.

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The role of assessments in the admission process is one of several big issues that remain unresolved. Aside from determining who is qualified to gain admission, the task force is considering a range of options to determine which exam schools the applicants get into.

Among the potential options: Assigning seats to applicants via a lottery or in rank order of their academic records. Some portion of seats could be distributed citywide, while others could be filled within ZIP codes, US Census tracts, or tiers that take into consideration the socio-economic backgrounds of students.

The task force is debating some novel ideas to level the playing field for disadvantaged students, such as giving high-poverty applicants a 10-point bonus in the admission process, or allowing students to demonstrate what they know with a portfolio of their academic work that could include an essay.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.