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Is the test for Boston’s exam schools receiving a failing grade?

Nearly half the students at Boston Latin School are white, though whites account for just 14 percent of Boston’s students.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file/Globe Staff

Hundreds of the city’s 11- and 12-year-olds flock to a handful of testing sites on a Saturday morning each November in hopes of gaining entry to Boston Latin School or one of Boston’s other two public exam schools.

A student’s score can realize or crush dreams of attending one of the prestigious schools, and it can decide whether a family pays a fortune for private school or moves to the suburbs. Such high stakes have spurred a cottage industry of pricey tutors and programs, giving wealthier students an edge and exacerbating one of the school system’s starkest racial inequities.

Now a growing number of parents, education advocates, and civil rights leaders say the exam must go, following the release of a Harvard study that indicated the test is a major barrier for black and Latino students. Some city councilors say the school system should, at minimum, convene a panel to explore changing the admission requirements, in what would be a sharp rebuke of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who halted a similar effort two years ago.

“It can’t be shelved or put on the back burner,” said City Council president Andrea Campbell, a Boston Latin School graduate.


In one of the most striking findings, the report revealed that black and Latino students with MCAS scores similar to their white and Asian peers do not score as well on the Independent School Entrance Exam, dashing their chances for admission. The report also found that the average grade point average for black and Latino students in this group was also one point lower than their white and Asian peers.

The School Committee has not changed the admission criteria to Latin School, Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science since 1999 when race was dropped as a factor amid legal challenges from white families. Admission is currently based on the Independent School Entrance Exam, which is used by many of the nation’s elite private schools, and a student’s grade point average.


The report, by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, found that if the school system scrapped the ISEE and simply relied on MCAS scores, the representation of black and Latino students at Latin School could increase by 50 percent. (That calculation also calls for the random assignment of qualifying students to the three exam schools instead of having students rank their preferences.)

“This is a glaring example of one of the things we need to change in the school system,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick, of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement. “We have stalled long enough on this.”

At this point, however, it seems unlikely the school system will overhaul admission requirements. In an interview, Michael Loconto, chairman of the School Committee, said the school system should instead continue to work on improving the quality of education in its lower-grade schools and increasing access to test prep programs.

“We are making steady progress with the changes we have made and will continue to look at ways to increase access and opportunity,” he said.

Walsh in 2016 committed to expanding the Exam School Initiative from 450 seats to 750. While it was unclear if the program has reached that capacity, diversity has increased.

But the effort so far has not led to any notable shifts in student demographics at Latin School, the crown jewel of the system. Nearly half the students are white, though whites account for just 14 percent of Boston’s students. Enrollment of black students slid to 7.9 percent last fall, down from 8.5 percent in fall 2015. But the portion of Latino students grew to 12.7 percent last fall, from 11.6 percent in fall 2015, according to the most recent state data.


Overhauling admission requirements has been controversial, especially among white middle-class families who spend years plotting their children’s ascent to the schools. Walsh halted a review of admission requirements two years ago, fearing it could aggravate racial tensions. The review took place while Latin School was in turmoil over allegations that administrators didn’t take complaints of racism seriously, prompting a federal probe and settlement agreement.

Boston Latin, founded in 1635, has been using a standardized entrance exam since 1963, replacing a process that was largely based on a student’s grades. The other schools started using exams around that time as well.

That exam, developed by the school system, was replaced a few years later by the Secondary Schools Admissions Test. In the mid-1970s, the school system adopted the ISEE, as part of Judge Arthur Garrity’s desegregation order, said Michael Contompasis, who was a Latin School teacher then and later served as headmaster for two decades. That order also set aside 35 percent of exam-school seats for black and Latino students.

“We are making steady progress with the changes we have made and will continue to look at ways to increase access and opportunity,” said School Committee chairman Michael Loconto.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff/file

The ISEE has long been criticized by many families and advocates because it does not measure what students have learned in the Boston school system under the state’s academic standards. It was designed to winnow admission offers to the nation’s most elite private schools.


A good swath of the material in the ISEE’s math and literature sections is not even taught in the fifth or sixth grades in Boston. That has led families — and, to a certain degree, the school system — to fill in the gaps with tutoring and specialized programs, resulting in highly stressful SAT-like cramming sessions for preteens, and financial headaches for many parents.

Cynda Pinto, whose 12-year-old son is a sixth-grader at the Roosevelt K-8 School in Hyde Park, said she couldn’t believe how expensive the programs were, with tutors going for $25 an hour and many private programs charging several hundred dollars. All those options, she said, were beyond her budget.

“My son really has his heart set on going to one of the exam schools,” she said. “It’s very disheartening. I feel bad my son doesn’t have the same chances of getting in as other kids whose families have financial resources. It’s not fair.”

Pinto ended up enrolling him in an afterschool test prep program at the Roosevelt that cost $200, but she wonders if it will give him the same boost. She also worries about the stress her son is enduring as he crams for the test.

Switching to the MCAS would involve other complications. State rules would need to be changed to allow the MCAS, which was designed to measure public school performance, to be given to private-school students. Or the school system could utilize a dual testing system — the MCAS for public school students and the ISEE for private school students — and find a way to equate the scores.


Contompasis said in an interview last week that there is no perfect admission system, but that the ISEE does a good job of measuring whether “kids can function well in a high-powered academic environment.” He also said the test, which students can take for free in Boston because it’s used for admission to the public exam schools, also opens doors to private schools for many black and Latino students.

“I don’t think tinkering with the exam is the answer. It’s getting more kids what they need — better academic preparation — to be in a position to gain access to the three exam schools,” said Contompasis, who is chairman of the trustees of the Boston Latin School Association, an alumni group that raises funds for the school, and the state-appointed receiver for the Dever Elementary School in Dorchester.

Meanwhile, the NAACP and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice have been holding neighborhood meetings for the past year to generate new methods for admitting students to the exam schools. One idea: reserving a portion of seats for the top-performing students at each of the city’s public elementary and K-8 schools.

“Low-income families keep getting the short end of the stick,” said Julia Mejia, founder of the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network. “I think the whole system has to be redesigned so it is more equitable, but I don’t think there is enough political will to do right by all kids in Boston.”

Former Boston Latin School headmaster Michael Contompasis doesn’t believe altering the test to enter the city’s exam schools is the solution. “It’s getting more kids what they need — better academic preparation — to be in a position to gain access to the three exam schools,” he said.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File 2016

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.