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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

A Student Perspective on Exam School Admissions

A Student Perspective on Exam School Admissions

This summer, MCIEA has been hosting a rising senior at Boston Latin School (BLS), Zoe Nagasawa, who won a social justice fellowship that places students in 8-week internships at Boston-area non-profit organizations. As part of her work with us, Zoe has been writing policy brief that weighs pros and cons of potential changes to the current process for exam school admissions in Boston Public Schools (BPS). Specifically, Zoe has conducted interviews with BLS staff, students and teachers as well as stakeholders in BPS community, asking participants to share their beliefs about changes such as: ending the use of an independent exam as part of the admissions process, switching to a model that considers student socio-economic background, or eliminating exam schools from BPS. Her report will present key themes from interview participant feedback about these potential changes. In addition, as a response to examples of racially charged incidents at BLS, Zoe will use interview data to make recommendations about how to nurture a more inclusive school culture at the nation’s oldest K-12 public school.

As readers are likely familiar, BPS recently ended its longstanding relationship with the Educational Records Bureau, the company that had administered the Independent Schools Entrance Exam. After announcing plans to use NWEA’s MAP assessment to determine admissions for the 2021-22 school year, BPS leadership received pushback from an internal taskforce, which recommended that the district suspend test-based admissions for this year, due to the pandemic. In response, BPS has convened a group of stakeholders, including headmasters at each of the three exam schools, to develop recommendations by next month. In 2017, Lawyers for Civil Rights and the NAACP’s Boston branch released a report that reignited public conversation about exam school admissions in Boston. Notably, they found that:

  • Black students comprise 11% of BLS invitees despite making up 31.8% of district-wide BPS enrollment.
  • Latino students comprise 16% of BLS invitees despite making up 41.8% of district-wide BPS enrollment.
  • White students comprise 43% of BLS invitees despite making up 14.2% of district-wide BPS enrollment.
  • Asian students comprise 26% of BLS invitees despite making up 8.8% of district-wide BPS enrollment.

We hope that Zoe’s report will offer a meaningful and unique contribution towards developing a more equitable system. Below, Zoe offers her perspective as a student at BLS.

A Student Perspective on Exam School Admissions

I’m a rising senior at Boston Latin School, one of the lucky few with the resources to get in and survive the academic rigors we’re so famous for. I love my school. I love our music department and our environmental club, love the library and the lengthy staircases. I have made friends and been afforded amazing opportunities, had wonderful teachers and administrators who work tirelessly to support their students. I’ve thrived here, and I love BLS for that.

It is out of love that I criticize it now. It is abundantly clear that racism exists in Boston Latin. Ask any student of color - we’ve all felt it, especially Black and Latinx people. Almost all of our Black and Latinx students have felt isolated, stereotyped, and stigmatized during their time at BLS. New reports of racist behavior in the student body are never uncommon. We’re still dealing with the waves that the #BlackAtBLS movement, which exposed a mountain of racist incidents that had previously been swept under the rug, caused, over four years later. The racism in this institution is not surprising - our school can only reflect the country it exists in - but it is unacceptable.

Much of the tension exists in part because the exam school admissions process is so discriminatory. Any system that relies solely on students’ GPA and test-scores, without taking into account the racial and socioeconomic factors that play into their success, is inherently unfair. In 2015, the median wealth of white families was $247,500. The median wealth of non-immigrant Black families was $8. This disparity heavily impacts the education children have access to prior to the exam school admissions process. Wealthier, usually white parents pay for test preparation courses and bargain with teachers for higher grades. Many Black and Latinx families don’t have the same time and resources and are accepted at much lower rates. BLS is only around 20% Black and Brown - the district is about 70%. This disparity is not only a sign that our country and our admissions process is deeply flawed, but is also extremely damaging to the Black and Brown students who do attend our school.

The BLS community should not accept this. The majority of my classmates, teachers, and administrators, all of them passionate about justice, inclusion, and good education for all, acknowledge the inequities in our system and would love to see them change. The BPS central office would do us no favors if they kept to the status quo and maintained the current admissions process. It would, in fact, go against the wishes of our school community. It would harm us.

This is the time for radical change. The Opportunity and Achievement Gap Task Force, appointed by the city to ensure equity in education, has recommended that BPS place a moratorium on admissions testing for the fall of 2020, and I believe that that is the best course of action. We need to remember that most of the applicants are only eleven or twelve years old. We can’t expect them to take a high-stakes test in the middle of a pandemic. Nor can we forget that COVID is hitting Black and Brown communities the hardest, widening the education gap and further disadvantaging them in the exam school process. It would be far fairer to base admissions on the 2018-2019 school year MCAS scores and to factor in socioeconomic status. Any test, including the MCAS and the newly-selected NWEA exam, especially if taken now, will only be a reflection of the systemic racism embedded in our country. The district must actively work to counterbalance that.

Chicago’s public school system admits an equal percentage of applicants from each of four calculated socioeconomic tiers; a study done in New York City recommended admitting the top students from each middle school. There are a plethora of strategies that BPS can consider. This is not an impossibility, or even that radical. It’s only what is fair to the district’s students, now and in the future. If we suspend the test and find a fair way to factor in socioeconomic status this year, we can implement those changes in the years to come, creating a just, sustainable admissions system.


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