School Committee gives unanimous consent to exam pause

After an eight-hour virtual meeting on Wednesday night, the Boston School Committee voted 7-0 to discontinue the exam used to place students into Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science for the upcoming academic year.

The plan, developed by BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and a working group commissioned by the district earlier this year, has drawn both support and push-back in recent days.

Instead of using exam results, the district will instead draw up a pool of eligible students who either maintained a B average this academic year or who “met or exceeded expectations” on the 2019 MCAS test. The district will then distribute invitations to students based on prior report card grades and zip codes.

Up to 20 percent of the seats available next year will be reserved for students with the top grades in the city. The remaining 80 percent will be admitted to the schools based on their GPA ranking within their home ZIP code, with eligible students from the lowest-income ZIP codes given first choice.

The students’ schools will also need to certify that they are learning at grade level under the state’s curriculum frameworks to be judged eligible. The new plan projects that the new admissions criteria will result in a 15 percent increase in the number of seats apportioned to Black and Latinx students next year. The district will begin identifying qualified students for the applicant pool in November and December.

Dozens of people spoke up— both for and against—the temporary plan. Some expressed frustration that there was no public comment period included in the plan’s development process. Others were in favor of nixing the exam altogether and planning for new admissions criteria in the future, while some were distressed at the prospect of suspending the use of the exam for even one year.

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A slew of elected officials, including Mayor Martin Walsh, logged in to support the plan.

“I want to express my support for this one-year plan,” Mayor Walsh said. “This year was meant to be the first year of a new more equitable exam, also the result of hard and thoughtful work by the Superintendent and her team. Instead, the exam will be given next year.”

“We are in agreement that this does not make educational sense to launch a new exam in the middle of a pandemic,” the mayor added. “It does not meet our public health guides to administer a citywide exam in the middle of a pandemic and for these reasons, I ask the school committee to adopt the Superintendent and working group’s proposal.”

At-Large Councillor Annissa Essaibi George said there should have been a public comment period included before the proposal was put to a vote.

“I am disappointed that the School Committee vote is taking place before an opportunity for public comment from parents and school communities,” she said.

“As chair of Education,” she added, “my top priority is making sure the process is fair and that every child has an equal shot at being admitted to an exam school from the moment they enter our school system. And the unfortunate reality is that we cannot provide an equal and fair process until we have high quality schools in every neighborhood.”

District 2 Councillor Ed Flynn of South Boston expressed concerns around language access, but spoke in support of the plan. State Rep. Russel Holmes and Rep. Liz Miranda, as well as Council President Kim Janey, and District 5 Councillor Ricardo Arroyo all supported the working group’s plan.

“I’m sure you’re going to hear many folks that disagree with the plan tonight. But talent is distributed equally by race, gender and ethnicity,” said Holmes. “What you have heard tonight is that the opportunity is not distributed equally.”

Before the hearing, District 4 Councillor Andrea Campbell, who is running for mayor in 2021, told the Reporter it would be “irresponsible” to hold the exam this year.

“This plan doesn’t change the admissions process permanently, but it has the potential to create more equity in the admissions process next year, which we should all welcome,” she said, adding, “As a Latin School graduate, I know personally how important this process is to students and families, and they deserve clarity.

“It’s a failure of the mayor and the district not to have created a process around this decision where parents, students, and families feel included and could make their voices heard. We must acknowledge that our current system leaves thousands of kids behind and we need to address the achievement and opportunity gaps in BPS with the same passion that we see around exam schools.” Campbell said.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston branch and a working group member, read a letter in support of the new plan submitted by Ibram X. Kendi, an author, professor at Boston University, and historian of race and discriminatory policy.

“What is always best for the community is admission policies that create equal opportunity for all, and we know a policy is creating more equal opportunity if it is closing racial and economic inequity. We know a policy is not creating equal opportunity if it is maintaining racial and economic inequity,” Kendi wrote.

“The data is indisputable on the effects of this plan— it will close racial and economic gaps. That’s how we should be assessing proposed and existing policies,” Kendi wrote, adding that standardized testing is historically rooted in systemic racism.

“To tell the story of standardized tests, is to tell the story of eugenicists who created and popularized these tests in the U.S. more than a century ago. Eugenicists today are considered to be racist, but somehow many consider their tests to be not racist— whatever that means,” he said in his letter.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, spoke in support of the plan, but said the district needs to work towards achieving equity across all schools.

“While we believe there are many ways the proposed plan needs to be improved we also know that the current plan is inedible and a new high stakes test during the pandemic is not the answer and will further exacerbate inequalities. More work with additional stakeholders including immigrant families with limited English access must go into a better admissions policy,” she said.

But perhaps most importantly we need to ensure that all of our schools have equal resources, opportunities, and access to high-quality instruction. No one should have to compete for an excellent education.”

While many supported the plan, and dozens said the district should use this moment to re-think using standardized exams as admissions criteria at all, roughly half of those that provided public comment throughout the night vehemently opposed a temporary pause on using the exam.

One man, whose comments were translated from Cantonese by an interpreter, said he “doesn’t know what to think” and “is feeling helpless” about the exams being suspended next year.

The man, who said his family came from China, said, “If we want to change our way of living, our kids have to go to a better school. Not having the exam would take away their opportunity.”

Chenggjing Hu said that the new plan means that all of her son’s hard work in school and preparing for the exam “has become useless.”

“These kids are becoming a victim of a zip code lottery,” said Hu. “This recommendation encourages our kids to depend on their life and future on luck. Do we really want to pass this message on to our kids?”

As the public comment period wrapped up, well after midnight, committee members were able to give some final comments before taking their vote.

“We’re failing a significant amount of our students by focusing in one place. Probably the most substantive conversation we've had about public schools in the five years that I’ve been on the committee has been what we’ve done in the last couple of weeks,” said committee member Jeri Robinson.

“There have been many questions and issues about the quality overall of our high school education and our opportunities or perceived opportunities by families that if they don’t get into this one school somehow their child’s whole future is gone,” added Robinson. “We do a disservice to all of our students and to our city if we allow that to be the thought process that we have.

She added: “This needs to be about the exam schools this next year. But it really is a conversation about what's going to happen with all of our high schools and how can we see this as a beginning of a set of very serious conversations that need to continue.”

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