Editorial: Toward exam school equity

A report published this week by researchers at Harvard’s JFK School of Government should prompt policy makers at City Hall— and all citizens of the city of Boston— to think about the manner by which we enroll students into our exam schools.

The Rappaport Institute report, entitled “Increasing Diversity in Boston’s Exam Schools” examines the racial gap that exists between the city’s school-age population in general and the student enrollment at the three exam schools.

Black and Latino students make up about 75 percent of the student body in the Boston public school system, but there’s a huge racial discrepancy at the exam schools, especially at Boston Latin School, where just about 25 percent of the incoming (7th grade) student body are black or Latino.

The report— authored by Associate Professor Joshua Goodman and doctoral student Melani Rucinski— identifies the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) as a stumbling block to realizing a more diverse student body at the exam schools. The authors emphasize that racial achievement gaps must be addressed in systemic ways, far before a student sits down to take the ISEE, or any other test. But their report also underlines the urgency of making the admissions process more equitable.

The report examined BPS data through the 2013 exam year that was made available to Harvard. Mayor Walsh’s team— now led by interim BPS Superintendent Laura Perille— says that they have already made significant progress in dismantling some of the hurdles identified in the Rappaport study, such as adding seats in prep courses, which nearly doubled the number of black and Latino participants.

There is good data that the Walsh administration can point to: Since 2015, the percentage of black and Latino students invited to attend Boston Latin School went from 16 percent to 25 percent; at Latin Academy, the percentage increased from 38 percent to 45 percent. At the John D. O’Bryant School for Mathematics and Science, the percentage jumped even higher— from 51 to 64.

That’s a promising trend. But the city should be doing everything it can to make it easier for all students to take the ISEE— or whatever tool replaces or augments it. To that end, starting in 2019, Perille says that the ISEE will be administered to all sixth and eighth graders who want to take it at their current school, rather than at one of seven locations that are options now.

One place where the Rappaport study makes a strong case for further reform is with MCAS scores, which, the authors suggest, might could be incorporated into the admissions process. According to Perille, starting in 2019, many BPS students will be “automatically pre-registered” for the ISEE based on their MCAS scores and GPAs.

That’s a start. But, let’s extend this line of inquiry a bit further: Should the ISEE should be used as the exclusive means test for Boston’s kids? The Rappaport study estimated that using fifth- grade MCAS scores “would result in 30 percent of BLS students being Black or Hispanic,” a significant increase over present levels. In an interview with the Reporter on Tuesday, Perille called the Rappaport study “really helpful” and reiterated that the BPS under Mayor Walsh is “committing to additional steps to eliminate barriers for students, particularly those who are black and Latino.”

On the specific question of further altering or augmenting the ISEE — beyond just offering it at each school— she said: “I think all things are up for consideration over the course of the next several years.” But, she added: “There is plenty that we can do right now.”

– Bill Forry