Tiptoeing into the exam school admission debate

Boston officials say they’ll look at changes -- but not too quickly

THE GLOBE REPORTS TODAY that the Boston Public Schools are “exploring the idea of replacing the controversial exam” that determines acceptance to the city’s three selective-admission schools.

Interim superintendent Laura Perille shared that news at a City Council hearing yesterday that was called to look at exam-school admission policies. But if the test used to determine admission to Boston Latin School and the city’s two other exam schools is controversial, so is any talk of changing the system that families have learned to master to funnel their offspring into one of the schools.

Admission to the exam schools relies heavily on scores on a test used for private school admissions. A Harvard study last year said use of the test disadvantages minority students. The test includes material not covered in the standard Boston school’s curriculum, making test prep classes a valuable part of students’ readiness for the exam. Critics say that gives an edge to better-off families that can pay for private tutors. The study found that black and Hispanic students with MCAS scores comparable to their white and Asian peers performed worse on the Independent School Entrance Exam, or ISEE.

One proposed reform would be to replace use of the ISEE with MCAS scores, a change that would see many more black and Latino students admitted to exam schools. While all public school students in the state take MCAS, Perille said there may be legal issues to work out if the test is going to be made available to Boston private school students, who don’t take MCAS at their schools, many of whom seek admission to a Boston exam school.

School officials said no change is being made for entrance exam being given this fall and that there is “no timeline for any potential changes at this moment.”

If it looks like school officials are tiptoeing gingerly into the issue, it’s because they are.

Former superintendent Tommy Chang raised the idea three years ago of revising the exam school admission policies — and practically had his head handed to him. Chang announced that he was forming an advisory committee to study the issue, but Mayor Marty Walsh said he had no idea such an effort was being launched and said, “I don’t think it’s the right time to be talking about it.”

Perille presumably cleared with the mayor the idea of at least talking about changes to the system.

Looming over the debate is the zero-sum quality to the whole exam school issue. There are many more students interested in seats than there are slots available at Boston Latin, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science.

For many middle-class Boston families, the only public school option they’ll consider for the upper grades is one of the three 7-12 grade exam schools. Without a slot at one of them, they look to private or parochial schools — or leave the city for a suburban school district.

For families without those options, there are seats at a charter school, many of which have waiting lists, or one of the city’s “open enrollment” high schools. But those schools struggle with low achievement and a host of other problems documented in a devastating report last year.

The study laid bare an uncomfortable truth that better-off Boston families all recognize — and are largely helped by: The city effectively operates two separate public high school systems, one that puts most students on track toward college success, while the other falls far short of that.

That background is crucial to understanding why the exam school admission debate is so charged.