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New superintendent open to replacing entrance test for exam schools

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

Boston Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, less than two weeks on the job, expressed a willingness on Wednesday to explore replacing the long-controversial admission test for the city’s exam schools, a polarizing issue that could end up in court.

Cassellius made her comments on WGBH radio Wednesday afternoon in response to questions from hosts Margery Eagan and Jim Braude, who raised the exam school issue. Cassellius said she was shocked when she learned in recent days that the district’s cost of administering the Independent School Entrance Exam was $140 per student, noting, “That’s a lot of money.”

“We could talk this over and see, are there other options in terms of the exam,” she said. “There might be something that, quite frankly, will save us money.”

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But she emphasized that she was not calling for eliminating an admission test altogether — an idea being pushed by several civil rights attorneys and parent advocates. “I’m not proposing getting rid of any type of exam or anything like that,” she said.

Cassellius declined a Globe interview request Wednesday to elaborate on her remarks.

Since before she even started as superintendent on July 1, Cassellius has been under pressure by civil rights attorneys to change admission requirements to Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science in an effort to ensure black and Latino students have a better chance of earning seats.

Three weeks ago, the NAACP and Lawyers for Civil Rights sent her and Mayor Martin J. Walsh a seven-page letter asking them to commit to overhauling the admission criteria and gave them 14 days to respond. But neither the superintendent nor the mayor responded to the letter, and the groups say they are exploring all legal options.

Cassellius’s comments on Wednesday only added to the discontent.

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“The superintendent’s focus on ISEE test costs — instead of real issues such as access and preparation — completely misses the mark,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “She is out of touch with the lived experience of countless students in our district. The problem, at the community level, is not the expense. It’s the complete lack of access and preparation. The test is not administered widely, and it does not even follow the curriculum taught by BPS. The test may be a financial burden, but it is significant barrier to diversity and equity.”

A school department spokesman would not say why Cassellius did not respond to the letter.

Boston school officials have been struggling for decades to enroll students at its exam schools in proportions that reflect the school system’s demographics. Federal court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s instituted racial quotas, but school officials abandoned them in the 1990s amid legal challenges.

The biggest disconnect is at Latin School.

While black and Latino students make up nearly three-quarters of the system’s overall enrollment, they hold just 20 percent of the seats at Latin School. By contrast, white and Asian students, who are less than a quarter of the system’s overall enrollment, collectively take up three-quarters of the seats at Latin School.

Admission is currently based on scores from the entrance exam and students’ grade point averages, which critics argue benefits affluent families who can spend thousands of dollars on private test-prep programs and admission consultants to dramatically boost their children’s odds of securing seats.

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Defenders of the system, many of whom are politically connected, call it a meritocracy.

Consequently, any talk of changing the system meets intense resistance.

In March, a public backlash quickly ensued after interim Superintendent Laura Perille disclosed during a City Council hearing that her administration was looking at the possibility of changing the test. Perille attempted to walk back her comments a day later, quelling the unrest.

Three years earlier, Walsh publicly squashed an effort to overhaul exam school admission requirements after he read a Globe story about Superintendent Tommy Chang appointing a working group to examine the idea, saying the timing for such a change was not right. Latin School had been embroiled in controversy over racial discrimination.

School officials say they have focused on other ways to boost diversity at the exam schools, such as improving academic programs in elementary schools so students have a stronger academic foundation and academic record. In a big move this fall, the school department will begin administering the entrance exam to students during the day at their schools instead of having them go to a regional testing site on a Saturday.

Lisa Green, a Boston Latin School parent and member of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, a group pushing for changes to the exam school admission requirements, said it was encouraging that Cassellius appears willing to reexamine the admission test.

“I think it’s clear the Independent School Entrance Exam is a driver of inequity in the system, but grades are also a driver of inequity,” she said, arguing that some parochial schools have easier grading systems.

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The ISEE came under direct fire last fall after a Harvard University report found the school system’s reliance on it was preventing thousands of students of color from gaining seats at the exam schools. Part of the reason, the report found, was that the test is not aligned with the school system’s curriculum and includes questions on material students never learned — making private test prep critical to fill in the gaps and giving the well-to-do a distinctive edge.

The report found that if the school system used MCAS scores instead, many more black and Latino students would get into exam schools.

Civil rights groups have recommended their own remedies, including creating an entrance test from scratch that aligns with the school system’s curriculum and inviting the top-performing students from each ZIP code or elementary school to the exam schools.

“The district has been working on this issue for quite some time but has consistently played it safe and has been unwilling to do what needs to be done in order to close these gaps” in achievement and in opportunities to attend high-achieving schools, said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP. “I’m hoping that Dr. Cassellius will be willing to be bold and to actually push the district out of the margins and into a space where we are actively working to close the racial achievement gaps.”

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