Organization slams Boston use of its test for exam school admission

Firm says ‘misapplication’ of exam may be hurting black and Latino students

THE COMPANY RESPONSIBLE for the test used to determine admission to Boston’s three exam schools says it will no longer make the test available to the district because it was being misused in ways that might be contributing to lower acceptance rates for minority students at the selective-admission schools.

The president of Education Records Bureau, the New York-based nonprofit that develops the test Boston has long used in its exam school admissions process, said in an email on Tuesday to other schools that also use the test that ERB will no longer provide the test to the Boston Public Schools because the district continues to utilize scores “in ways that do not align with ERB implementation guidelines or best practices in admissions.” ERB president Tom Rochon went on to say that the “misapplication of [test] scores has been one factor in perpetuating admissions outcomes that disproportionately affect students belonging to underrepresented groups, thus reducing their access to the educational opportunities available in the exam schools.”

In an interview on Wednesday, however, Rochon seemed to back off the claim that the city’s misuse of the the test has definitely contributed to exam school demographics.

The policies used to admit students to the city’s three exam schools have become a flashpoint in the debate over educational equity in Boston. Latino and black students account for 72 percent of Boston Public Schools students, but claim only 21 percent of the seats at nationally renowned Boston Latin School. They account for 46 percent of students at Boston Latin Academy and 68 percent of the student population at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. 

Rochon said ERB has requested multiple times — starting eight years ago — that Boston change the way it uses scores on the Independent School Entrance Exam, or ISEE, but has been consistently rebuffed. He said ERB also urged the district to let ERB carry out a validity study of the test, which the organization offered to pay for. 

Boston determines admission to the three 7-12 grade exam schools based on combination of elementary school grades and performance on the ISEE, which is used for admission decisions by about 1,900 schools nationwide, most of them private schools.

The test is broken into four sections, two that assess reasoning skills and two that test learning achievement. Rochon said ERB has urged Boston to abandon its practice of adding student performance on the four sections together into a single score and to instead look at the four scores individually in developing admission standards.

He said giving added weight to reasoning scores over learning achievement, for example, might lead to greater admission rates for black and Latino students who have the potential to achieve at high levels in exam schools but may have attended an elementary school that lacked a strong curriculum. 

“Hypothetically,” Rochon said in a telephone interview, “if you have a diverse pool of applicants, some of whom have richer past educational opportunities and experiences, then the measures of reasoning ability can enable you to identify the so-called ‘diamonds in the rough’ — students who may not have had the best educational opportunities but who have the ability to catch up very rapidly.”

Rochon said summing the four scores goes against best practices publicly stated on ERB’s website as well as its “private urgings to the district.” 

Boston school superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement that the district would be issuing a request for proposals for companies to provide the exam-school test for next year, and that it will ask applicants to address long-standing concerns about the test. Cassellius, who assumed her post last July, said she became aware almost immediately of “concerns that the ISEE test was potentially creating barriers for some students seeking admission to BPS’ exam schools, particularly underrepresented students.” 

She said whatever new test is used will be “reviewed and validated for bias,” and that she declined ERB’s offer to underwrite a validity study of the ISEE to “avoid giving undue advantage” to any vendor who might apply to provide services to the district. 

Her statement did not address why the district had ignored what ERB says has been long-standing urging by the organization that Boston not combine scores on the four sections of the ISEE. 

In September of last year, five months after ERB told Boston officials it would no longer provide the ISEE for use in exam school admissions, Boston school officials reached out to the organization asking for detailed results from the test over the past years so that the district could do its own analysis, including looking at separate results on the test’s four sections. After an exchange of emails about the request, Boston school officials say ERB never responded to a question asking how much it would cost to retrieve the test data. 

Rochon said in his email that he wanted to let other schools using the ISEE know what had happened in Boston because district leaders were not sharing the full story of ERB’s efforts to get the city to change how it uses the test. “District leaders have chosen not to make that fact public but have instead begun to point to the ISEE as the root cause of their admissions disparities,” he wrote.

Civil rights and education advocates have called on the city to revamp the admission policies in ways that would bring the make-up of the exam school populations closer to the overall demographics of the district. 

A 2018 report by researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School found that abandoning the ISEE and basing exam school admission on scores on the 5th grade MCAS, which all public school students take, would boost black and Latino representation at Boston Latin School by 50 percent. 

Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston advocacy organization that has raised concerns about exam school admission policies and use of the ISEE, slammed the Boston Public Schools and city leadership following the claims made in Rochon’s email.

“This revelation from the entity that creates and administers the ISEE is damning to BPS and CIty Hall,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the group’s executive director. “It is, literally, a smoking gun demonstrating that BPS has deliberately and intentionally refused to consider less discriminatory alternatives to help support students of color who are striving to attend Boston Latin School and other elite exam schools.” 

Despite his email’s suggestion that Boston has used the ISEE in ways that have reduced access of “underrepresented groups” to exam schools, Rochon said it’s actually not clear how a different use of the four separate scores on the test would affect the demographics of who is admitted to the Boston exam schools. He said that’s why ERB had been long pushing to conduct a validity study of the test. 

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“You can’t know until you do it,” he said.