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Ideas | Jim Stergios

Tackling equity at Boston’s exam schools

African-Americans constitute a 7.5 percent share of students at Boston Latin School. Similarly, Latino students make up 12.5 percent of students there.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file 2016/Globe Staff

This spring, The New York Times reported that of the 4,800 students admitted to New York’s nine exam schools, a mere 190, or 4 percent, were African-American. At Manhattan’s acclaimed Stuyvesant High School, just seven black students were among the 895 admitted. Less than 1 percent of the school’s total enrollees are black.

Boston earns no bragging rights by beating the thoroughly broken New York City school system at equity of access to elite exam schools. But neither do the Boston Public Schools deserve the recent drubbing they are getting from the NAACP and Lawyers for Civil Rights, who wrote a stern letter to the city condemning the “discriminatory impact” of the schools’ admissions policies and have held out the prospect of a lawsuit.


Today, African-Americans constitute 31 percent of BPS students, with proportional enrollment (over 30 percent) at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, 21 percent at Boston Latin Academy, and an unacceptably low 7.5 percent share at Boston Latin School. Similarly, Latino students make up 42 percent of BPS’s student body, but only 32.5, 25.5, and 12.5 percent at the exam schools, respectively.

While minority enrollment at the O’Bryant and Latin Academy has held steady over the last decade, there has been a steep decline at Latin School. Since Judge Arthur Garrity’s move to lift the federal court-ordered 35 percent set-aside for black and Latino students in 1987 and the decisions in McLaughlin v. Boston School Committee (1996) and Wessman v. Boston School Committee (1998), which called into question the constitutionality of race-based preferences, black enrollment has fallen to the single digits. So when civil rights advocates call on BPS to “eliminate barriers” to the elite schools, they are primarily talking about Latin School. Their remedies are essentially two: Move away from the widely used aptitude tests and instead adopt the state’s MCAS achievement test, or replicate a private college “portfolio” approach to admissions, factoring in academics, special skills, race, and zip code.


My disagreement with the arguments put forth by these organizations has less to do with their proposals, and more to do with how they brush aside creative efforts that are underway, and ignore both the obvious underlying issue — namely, too many of the elementary and middle schools that feed the exam schools fail to provide a good education to their majority minority student populations — and constructive actions that policymakers could take immediately.

Move from an aptitude to an achievement test?

As data presented in Joshua Goodman and Melanie Rucinski’s 2018 study for Harvard’s Rappaport Institute shows, jettisoning the current entrance exam and instead using the state’s MCAS achievement test will increase minority enrollment in the exam schools.

This change has shortcomings, though. MCAS tests achievement. The current exam — known as the Independent School Entrance Exam, or ISEE — is designed to be predictive, mixing questions on both achievement and reasoning. The exam schools prefer the ISEE because it is what their competitors, elite private schools, use. Move to the MCAS and exam school administrators fear they will be perceived as inferior by college admissions officers. The likely result? Fewer admissions to elite colleges, a core goal of the exam schools.

Then there is the fallout from the fact that the BPS curriculum is a mess. It’s incoherent and it has lowered high school math and history standards and earlier grade academic requirements. Some of the students who get good grades in this system and do well on the MCAS are still not prepared for the rigors of the exam schools. Using MCAS results for admissions would probably invite far higher attrition rates and prove disruptive.


Add to that the impact on the 23,000 school-aged Boston children who do not attend the Boston Public Schools. For more than half of these students — those who attend public charter schools and participate in the METCO program — the impact would be minimal. Their curricula are aligned with the MCAS. But for the almost half who are homeschooled or attend parochial and other private elementary and middle schools, it would be significant: These school options do not align their curricula with state frameworks and tests.

If advocates believe the ISEE is racially biased, they should take the Education Resources Bureau, the nonprofit that created the assessment, up on its offer to present, publicly and free of charge, analyses of the test’s predictive ability and racial sensitivity.

It is important to remember that the ISEE is neither acting as an obstacle to admission to the O’Bryant nor substantially inhibiting admittance to BLA. The issue of lopsided admissions concerns one school: Boston Latin.

Blaming one school for what ails the district

What I find myopic about the advocates’ analysis is that it is like someone looking at a river that draws from four tributaries, the water of each having a distinct color. Observing that two of the tributaries are running low, they blame the confluence where the tributaries flow into the river. They don’t think to clear the blockages upstream in the tributary.


What I mean is this. The district’s lowest performing elementary and middle schools, defined as those falling into the bottom 10 percent statewide, serve a disproportionate share of black and Hispanic students. A focused intervention to raise achievement in these two dozen schools would expand the flow of African-American and Latino students prepared for the exam schools. This is the underlying cause of the differentials; the Latin School is a symptom.

BPS’ forward thinking

Boston has demonstrated responsiveness in a way that goes beyond most other districts in the country. In just the past few years, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration has worked with the MBTA to expand transportation options to the exam schools, especially Latin School, which is harder to reach from heavily minority neighborhoods with the exception of Mission Hill.

The city has also made it much easier to take the ISEE. Because data suggested that African-American and Hispanic students had more difficulty reaching the six ISEE test sites on the Saturdays it was given, BPS is also administering the test on weekdays at public schools attended by Boston sixth graders (One could say that this move disadvantages private and charter school, as well as METCO and homeschool students, but it is a reasonable move by BPS to rectify imbalances).


Through BPS’s Exam School Initiative, up to 750 students across the city can access a preparatory course at no cost. With approximately 1,000 exam school seats available annually, this is a significant commitment, and one that comes with a set-aside of 350 ESI seats for African-American and Latino students.

Finally, the Goodman and Rucinski study found that African-American and Hispanic students scoring in the top 25 percent on MCAS, and therefore the most likely pool of students for the exam schools, are “13 percentage points less likely than White and Asian students to rank BLS as their first choice.”

The Latin School Alumni Association is engaging fellow minority alumni to serve as ambassadors to their communities, in an effort to improve perceptions about BLS. (They also mentor enrolled students to increase retention and success at the school.) As part of this effort, the association may also want to establish on-campus summer programs for talented minority students in the fourth and fifth grades.

Here are three additional actions our community and political class should take:

A three-year “ramp up” tutoring program for exceptional students

Although the test prep program is good, it is a band-aid. A more systemic step would be for the district to identify exceptional minority students by the fourth grade and develop a multi-year academic tutoring program that supports higher attainment in math, English, and other academic subjects. Given all that BPS has to address in terms of reform, as well as the need to market the program and maintain its quality over time, a faster (and proven) approach might be for area philanthropies to fund access to programs like the Kumon schools and Russian Schools of Math for talented underrepresented populations from the fourth to sixth grades.

Stop penalizing METCO students who might want to return to BPS

The Boston METCO program allows 3,500 students of color to attend high-achieving suburban schools. Having developed friendships in the suburbs, many METCO sixth and eighth graders will not apply to Boston’s exam schools. Others do not apply because METCO students matriculating at the exam schools are not allowed to return to their suburban districts should they later find the exam school to be a poor fit. The suburban districts argue that holding a seat open is unfair to the over 10,000 students on METCO waitlists and that they are risking a loss of state per-pupil funding. Assuming the Latin School were to include 30 METCO students among the 400 students it admits annually, the potential number who might return to their METCO districts is de minimis. State budget writers can easily find a fix for this problem.

It’s time for the Baker-Walsh bromance to focus on education

No one questions that chronically low black and Hispanic enrollment at Latin School needs to be addressed — and now. But, again, let’s look at the cause, not just the symptom. The fact is that the racial injustice in the Boston Public Schools is bigger than anything occurring at Latin School. Over the last three decades, the city’s schools have benefited from many good efforts and made some overall progress, but history will nonetheless judge us harshly given that BPS has failed to address the one-third of its schools that are chronically failing.

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius can and should advance school-based improvements. She should downsize the central office and redirect the savings to schools and classrooms. But she cannot force much-needed changes any more than her predecessors could. It’s time for the governor and mayor to bring the kind of intensive intervention witnessed in Lawrence. The result there was academic enrichment, a significant improvement in student achievement, and graduation rates that improved by 50 percent.

Apply the same focused approach to Boston’s failing elementary and middle schools and open up the untapped pipeline of talent that these students represent.

The state constitution that John Adams wrote in 1780 was clear in its obligations, and famously promised all children access to a good education. In their respective oaths of office, both the governor and mayor solemnly swore “true faith and allegiance” to all citizens and to fulfill their obligations under the Adams constitution, “so help me God.” If fear of His wrath is not enough, then in the inimitable words of Bill Belichick, do your jobs.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.