K-12 Education

The NAACP and Lawyers for Civil Rights Want Exam School Admissions Overhauled in Boston

The civil rights groups sent a letter to Mayor Walsh, the School Committee, and the incoming BPS superintendent yesterday.


photo via istock.com/Lisa-Blue

After years of disproportionately high admittance rates for white students at Boston’s coveted exam schools, the NAACP and Lawyers for Civil Rights are demanding action. According to the Boston Globethe civil rights groups sent a letter to Mayor Walsh, the School Committee, and incoming BPS superintendent Brenda Cassellius on Wednesday asking them to completely overhaul the exam school admissions process.

For students in the Boston Public Schools system, acceptance to one of the system’s three exam schools—Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant—is the fast track to success. Exam school students outperform their peers on standardized tests, and the schools are consistently ranked among the top public high schools in the state.

However, it has long been clear that, for black and Latinx students, each step of the admissions process to these prestigious schools presents a distinctive barrier to entry. The numbers are staggering: While black and Hispanic students made up 30.9 and 42.1 percent of total BPS enrollment this year respectively, the student body at Boston Latin this past year was only 7.5 percent black students and 12.5 percent Hispanic students. White students, on the other hand, made up only 14.6 percent of BPS enrollment, but made up 46.8 percent of BLS’s student body.

Why the disparity? According to critics, a broken admissions system.

Admission to BLS, BLA, and OB relies upon two primary factors: student grade point average and performance on a standardized test called the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE). However, these measures are highly imperfect. Grading across Boston’s private, parochial, charter, and public schools is not standardized, with some schools using letter grades and others using a 1-4 grading scale. Plus, a Harvard University study from last year found that “the exam covers a variety of topics in math and literacy, only some of which are covered by the typical BPS elementary school curriculum,” thereby testing students (who, in the BPS system, are majority black and Latinx) on material many of them have not learned yet.

“There are many alternative admissions policies that would support a high-performing student body while resulting in a less discriminatory impact,” the letter said, as cited by the Globe. “As such, the current admission policy for Boston’s exam schools likely violates both federal and state law.”

The letter asks for a response within 14 days from BPS officials, detailing the changes they plan to make. If BPS fails to take adequate action, it sounds like legal action could be taken.

“Not only is BPS constitutionally permitted to take steps to diversify its exam schools, its failure to do so risks violating both federal and state anti-discrimination laws,” the letter said, “even if there is no discriminatory intent.”

BPS has made only marginal changes in the exam school admissions system in response to prior calls for reform. In the 2019-20 school year, BPS will reportedly begin to expand access to a free ISEE prep course, administer the ISEE during the school day instead of on a Saturday, pre-register students identified by the school district, and strive to better calibrate grading across fifth grade classrooms.

For the NAACP and Lawyers for Civil Rights, however, these reforms don’t go nearly far enough. To truly battle the discriminatory admissions process, they say the entire system must be reworked. The civil rights groups have proposed several alternative strategies in the past, including inviting the top students from each ZIP code or public school to the exam schools, creating a new exam that better aligns with BPS’s curriculum, or imposing an admission system that would evaluate students more holistically, taking factors like extracurricular activities into account.

“In restructuring Boston’s exam school admissions process, BPS has both a chance and the authority to stop resegregation,” Lauren Sampson and Iván Espinoza-Madrigal of Lawyers for Civil Rights wrote in a commentary piece for WBUR earlier this year. “The exam schools are perceived as the best of public education in Boston. They should…reflect the rich diversity in our communities.”