Entrance Exams for Boston Exam Schools Should Be Reconsidered: Here’s Why

by Sally Jamrog

Opinion

May 31, 2021

As most BUA students residing in Boston probably know, Boston has three public schools that require an entrance exam: the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, Boston Latin Academy, and Boston Latin School. These schools educate students in grades seven to twelve and accept new students in grades seven and nine. For the past twenty-five years, the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) has been used to admit students to these schools. A student’s result on the ISEE and a student’s grade point average (GPA) have each counted as 50% of their application.1 Last year, however, because of the COVID-19 epidemic, ISEE testing had to be suspended and has been canceled for the 2021-2022 academic year as well. The temporarily altered application process is now based on how well students do on at least one of the following criteria: meeting or exceeding expectations on both the English language arts and math sections of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) and earning an average GPA of B or higher in studies of math and the humanities.1

Before 1963, Boston’s exam schools never required an exam, admitting students solely based on grades and a recommendation from an elementary school principal.2 As the number of applicants for the schools increased, an entrance exam, a less subjective way to evaluate applicants, was implemented to streamline the admissions process. For minority students, there was little difference in acceptance rates even after the first entrance exams were established. In 1971, only 1.9% of the student body at the Boston Latin School identified as black, even though 32% of the district’s student population was black.2 The racial demographics in the Boston exam schools still do not reflect those of the Boston student population. For instance, today black and Hispanic students make up almost 75% of Boston’s student-age population but only make up about 40% of the students enrolled in the Boston exam schools and only 20% at Boston Latin School, the most selective.3

Studies in the past twenty-five years have shown that the ISEE is a large contributing factor to these demographics. In a report by WGBH news, the ISEE was found to inaccurately predict the academic performance of most test takers. An investigation done by the Harvard Rappaport Institute in 2016 confirmed that much of the material on the ISEE is not taught by the start of sixth grade in Boston Public Schools (BPS), making it necessary to get external help in preparation for the exam.2 The test then tends to favor students who have had the privilege of attending private and perhaps more academically rigorous elementary schools, where students learn material before others at different schools. On this inequity, BPS superintendent Dr. Brenda Cassellius says that the ISEE tests academic “standards that aren’t taught on a typical day in a Boston classroom.”4 

It seems impossible to make the ISEE and, indeed, any other form of standardized testing completely equitable because it will always provide some students with more advantages than others and ultimately relegates test takers to the value of their test results. As Amelia Boudreau ‘23 says, “I specifically think that these exams can serve as an inequitable barrier to getting into schools due to issues of individual families’ financial mobility, as well as a fundamentally flawed attempt at quantifying intelligence.” However, while eliminating standardized testing might address these issues, with an annual applicant pool of nearly five thousand students, the Boston exam schools would still need some form of objective streamlining mechanism for admissions. This is in contrast to the admissions processes employed by many private schools, which have the privilege of interacting with applicants via interviews and organized events. As Sebastian Depaz Mesa ‘23 says, “There is a lot more to a student than a number can reflect, but having interviews for so many applicants is not practical.” Schools would “need a way to test mass amounts of students, all from different backgrounds, in a way that is fair and properly represents their academic ability,” says Vincent Brunn ‘23.

As an alternative, another study done by the Harvard Rappaport Institute showed that changing the admissions criteria for Boston’s exam schools to include MCAS test performance instead of an ISEE score would augment black and Hispanic enrollment in the exam schools by up to 50%.5 This admissions approach was suggested by Dr. Cassellius as well. She also noted that MCAS, which costs $45 per student on average and is paid for by the student’s school, would be a cheaper option than the ISEE, which costs $225-$255 per individual testing session and is generally paid for by the student. While these new ideas for admissions processes still rely on standardized testing, the MCAS test, unlike the ISEE, is given annually in the majority of Massachusetts education programs, so a more diverse range of students would have access to adequate preparation resources.

Additionally, the new exam school admissions process, as it has been altered in 2021-2022, offers 20% of seats to students with the highest GPA in the applicant pool. The other 80% are filled using zip codes, giving the seats to the applicants with the highest GPAs in each district.1 Although many people in favor of reviving the entrance exam after the pandemic took issue with including zip codes in the selection process, fearing that it would introduce an element of randomness and potentially “degrade [the schools’] academic standards,” BPS has asserted that it is a misconception to think that considering students’ zip codes would somehow devalue the process of admission.6 Since students would still be ranked by GPA, this process should not diminish the schools’ rigor and academic performance.

So on the one hand, entirely abolishing the testing program and establishing a different system would probably be the best way to ensure more equal opportunities for students overall. As Eli Scott-Joseph ‘24 says, “I don’t really know how [we] would make a better test.” However, given the large number of students who apply to the exam schools each year, there would still need to be a process in place that enables many students to be evaluated, just in a much more equitable manner. One option would be to weigh the exam far less heavily in the admissions process and consider using the more familiar MCAS test, for which many schools already provide resources and support. If not the MCAS, schools could also consider using the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) instead of the ISEE. The SSAT is not only less expensive than the ISEE, though still more expensive than MCAS — $150 per individual testing session compared to the $225-$255 individual ISEE testing sessions — but also perhaps more in line with school curricula. Regardless, finding a way to evaluate Boston exam school applicants in an efficient but equitable manner should be a priority when thinking about how to most effectively diversify the Boston exam schools. And, although a somewhat radical idea, we should definitely consider abolishing or putting much less emphasis on standardized testing.


1 BPS, “English – EXAM SCHOOL FINAL SLIDES,”
https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rGTwkRwrc98PDDTd5xoJkCjdLBZQ2KOf/view.

2 Carrie Jung, “Not Always An Exam School: The History Of Admissions At Boston’s Elite High Schools,” WBUR, March 5, 2020,
https://www.wbur.org/edify/2020/03/05/boston-exam-school-admissions-history.

3 Joshua Goodman and Melanie Rucinski, “Increasing Diversity in Boston’s Exam Schools,” Harvard Kennedy School, October 2018,
https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/joshuagoodman/files/rappaport_brief.pdf.

4 Eliza Dewey, “Cassellius Wants New State Funding For Boston To ‘Go To Kids,’” WGBH, November 22, 2019,
https://www.wgbh.org/news/education/2019/11/22/cassellius-wants-new-state-funding-for-boston-to-go-to-kids.

5 Molly Boigon, “Boston Schools Ignored Anti-Bias Bid Specs in Awarding Testing Contracts,” WGBH. November 2, 2018,
https://www.wgbh.org/news/education/2018/11/02/boston-schools-ignored-bid-specs-in-awarding-testing-contracts.

6 Melissa Bailey, “A Golden Ticket: Efforts to Diversify Boston’s Elite High Schools Spur Hope and Outrage,” NBC News, March 17, 2021,
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/education/golden-ticket-efforts-diversify-boston-s-elite-high-schools-spur-n1261199.

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