Interim Boston schools Superintendent Laura Perille said Tuesday that her administration is exploring the idea of replacing the controversial exam that has determined the fate of tens of thousands of students vying for coveted spots at Boston Latin School and the city’s two other exam schools.
Perille disclosed the review during a City Council hearing that scrutinized exam-school admission policies. Her comments came six months after a Harvard University report found the school system’s reliance on a test designed for private school admission was blocking thousands of students of color from an education at some of the city’s best public schools.
“We are certainly keeping on the table the possibility of a different exam,” she said, adding that her administration is “basically looking at the different providers on the market.”
Changing the admission criteria for the city’s exam schools has long been a polarizing issue in Boston. Families that know the admission process well — mostly well-to-do ones — often pay for private tutoring in an all-out quest to get what many consider to be a private school education for their children at no cost.
But many civil rights advocates say the frenzy to snare an exam school seat in a city rife with many failing high schools has come at the expense of some of the city’s most disadvantaged students, whose families lack the financial resources or know-how to give them an edge in the admission race. Civil rights advocates have also repeatedly raised questions about potential racial bias in the admission exam.
“It’s high time we start reforming the admission policies of our exam schools,” City Councilor Kim Janey said at the start of the hearing.
In October, Harvard University’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston found that the Independent School Entrance Exam presented one of the biggest barriers for black and Latino students to gain admission to Latin School, Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science. For instance, black and Latino students with MCAS scores similar to their white and Asian peers did not score as well on the ISEE, dashing their chances for admission. They also were significantly less likely to take the ISEE.
One reason for the performance gap was that the ISEE covers material in literature and algebra that is not part of the BPS curriculum and the test is administered on a Saturday. By contrast, if the school system relied instead on the MCAS, which is given during the school day, its exam schools would wind up with greater student diversity, according to the report.
Pressure to change admission criteria has only intensified. Just last week the NAACP, Lawyers for Civil Rights, and other groups concluded nearly two years of public forums on overhauling exam-school admission requirements and proposed their own solutions. They recommended having BPS develop its own admission test, offering seats to top students from each school or ZIP code, or creating a “holistic” approach that could include such factors as a student’s socioeconomic status and accomplishments in sports, the arts, and community service.
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director for the Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the school system’s willingness now to explore the possibility of changing the ISEE is a step in the right direction, saying “it is in response to significant community-driven efforts to democratize access to Boston’s elite exam schools.”
“Right now the city’s reliance on the ISEE is completely misplaced,” he said in an interview. “The city should absolutely reconsider the entire admissions process.”
Initially, school officials were cool to the idea of replacing the ISEE after Harvard released its report, preferring instead to focus on efforts to expand opportunities for black and Latino students to take the exam. For instance, starting next year, sixth-graders will be able to take the ISEE during the school day instead of having to travel to a testing site on a Saturday. City students can take the exam for free.
School officials also have been trying to increase the caliber of instruction in the lower grades, although efforts have not been systemwide. A key program, Excellence for All, is in just 16 schools.
Discussions about possibly replacing the ISEE appear to be in the early stages.
In a statement after the hearing, the School Department said no changes to the exam would be proposed for this fall.
“Boston Public Schools will continue to review the exam school entrance assessment for planning purposes, but there is no timeline for any potential changes at this moment,” the statement said. “Any changes to the exam provider would likely include an opportunity for public input and a request-for-proposal process.”
During the hearing, Perille said that if the BPS switched to the MCAS, legal issues may need to be worked out. For instance, state rules may need to be changed to allow the MCAS, which was designed to measure public school performance, to be given to private-school students hoping to win a place at the city exam schools.
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, chair of the council’s Education Committee, said she was unsure about the MCAS.
“As a former teacher, I’m not a super fan of using the MCAS,” said Essaibi-George, whose children attend Latin School and Latin Academy.
One data point released by school officials during the hearing struck a nerve with City Councilor Michael Flaherty. Officials said that about 40 percent of black and Latino students who registered for the ISEE exam the last two falls did not show up, which officials blamed in part on the exam being held on a weekend at regional sites. That, they said, can create transportation barriers.
But Flaherty argued that parents bear some responsibility. He said he understands that many families lead complicated lives, but he doubted assertions that many families lack awareness about the exam school and the admission process.
“Where are the parents in this discussion, and why does the BPS let them off the hook?” Flaherty said.
The Rev. Willie Bodrick of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement later leaped to the defense of the system’s parents, especially those in marginalized communities.
“The parents in our communities are strong, they are resilient, they care, they love, and they work hard, sometimes two jobs, sometimes through language barriers,” he said. “They want what’s best for their kids.”