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BPS picks exam vendor in spite of task force call for moratorium

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
BPS picks exam vendor in spite of task force call for moratorium
Boston Latin Academy is one of the city's three exam schools. Banner photo

Boston Public Schools officials announced on July 2 the selection of a new standardized test for admission to its three exam schools, just two days after the BPS-appointed Opportunity and Achievement Gap Task Force voted unanimously for a moratorium on exam school testing during the COVID pandemic.

The district tapped NWEA, a Portland, Oregon-based firm whose test BPS officials say is closely aligned to the district’s curriculum. The previous test was criticized for not matching what students had been taught in school.

“I am excited to partner with NWEA and appreciate their desire to work with BPS on our shared goal of increasing the diversity of our exam schools,” said BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius in a statement sent to news media. “BPS has identified a fair assessment that is aligned to the Massachusetts state standards, tests students on material they have learned in school, and has been reviewed and validated for bias. Administering this new entrance test is an important step forward in expanding access to the exam schools for all students.”

The Thursday announcement came after members of the task force charged with helping the school system eliminate inequities voted to recommend to BPS that the district suspend the test, administered each year in fall, for one year because of the COVID epidemic and use the time to come up with a more equitable way of admitting students to the three exam schools: Boston Latin Academy, Boston Latin School and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science.

“Choosing a new test puts a stake in the ground that we’re going to continue on with the same business as usual,” said task force member Ayele Shakur, “whereas you actually have the opportunity to say, ‘We’re not going to pick a new test in the middle of COVID. We’re going to take a pause and use different criteria.’”

Shakur noted that colleges and universities have suspended use of the SAT test during the pandemic and questioned the district’s insistence on using such a test.

“Those schools are BPS schools,” she said. “So why are we giving an advantage to kids coming out of private schools who know how to game the system?”

The OAG task force members were appointed by BPS to review policies for their impact on inequities in the school system.

District officials who participated in the task force meeting on June 30 included Cassellius, Chief Equity and Strategy Officer Charles Grandson and Joane Etienne, school-based testing project manager in the district’s Welcome Services department.

During the meeting, none of the BPS officials indicated that a decision on selecting a new testing firm was imminent.

Commenting on the task force members’ call for a review of exam school admissions, Grandson said, “We’re looking at addressing these complexities around exam school admissions.”

“We are in a time and a place where we really have to consider what is most equitable,” Etienne said. “We’re not looking to make major shifts for this upcoming September. We do want to engage and have lots of conversation.”

Reached Friday, Shakur said she was shocked that the district selected a vendor without responding to the task force recommendation.

“This is not the time for the district to be investing half-a-million dollars to perpetuate inequity,” she said. “For the mayor to go blazing ahead with their plan shows the structural racism in the system.”

The company BPS has used through this year for testing, Educational Records Bureau (ERB), announced earlier this year that it is severing ties with BPS, claiming the district relied too heavily on the test to determine eligibility for its three exam schools. While many colleges and universities use the SAT exam and grades for admittance, they also rely on other factors including teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities and student interviews in their admissions process.

BPS has used a combination of the ERB’s Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) and a student’s grades for exam school admissions. Critics say the exam, which was designed for admissions to private schools, does not match the curriculum taught in BPS schools and, therefore, favors students from private schools, who are predominantly white, over the district’s predominantly Latino and Black student population.

Blacks make up 30 percent of the district’s enrollment, but just 7.6 percent of the 2,471 Boston Latin School students. Latinos are 42.4 percent of the district’s enrollment, but just 13.3 percent of Boston Latin School students.

The Opportunity and Achievement Gap Task Force members voted unanimously in favor the resolution calling for a moratorium on testing.