Why Aren't Boston’s Exam Schools Diverse?

Author: Jill Shah
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In our first episode on Boston’s exam schools, Examining the Exam Schools, Michael Contompasis, long time Boston Public Schools educator who has served as Superintendent and head of Boston Latin School, discussed equity and opportunity at the Boston Public Schools exam schools. As this series continues, we will be looking at important topics related to the exam schools to get a better sense of the current state of BPS, and share why these issues should be important to the city as a whole, not just to Boston Public Schools.

We discussed with Michael the concerns and debates surrounding the admissions test being used for the exam schools: the Independent Schools Entrance Exam, or ISEE for short. This test, comprised of four sections in English and math, accounts for 50% of a student’s admissions requirement  to the BPS exam schools. Use of the ISEE test in exam school admissions is controversial because some content on the ISEE isn’t taught in a typical BPS 5th grade classroom. Due to the fact that there is a discrepancy between ISEE material and BPS curriculum, many with means to do so have relied upon external tutoring services to prepare their child for the ISEE thereby creating inequity in the system. 


Many have called for a change in the criteria for admission, including an alternative test, while others call for using the more content aligned MCAS scores for public school students. All students are taught to the content of the MCAS tests.  The degree to which our students are prepared for MCAS still appears to be variable, but there are incentives in place that drive a more equitable preparation of all students for MCAS vs. ISEE.  Interestingly, there is a significant number of our students who do well on the MCAS, but either do not take the ISEE or do not fair as well on the ISEE. With all of these concerns and debates, it leaves questions of why is BPS using a test that doesn’t follow their curriculum, why their curriculum doesn’t include topics on the ISEE, and what does current data suggest about MCAS scorers and ISEE scorers?

Today’s episode features an insight into the ISEE with Associate Professor of Economic at Brandeis University, Joshua Goodman. Mr. Goodman, along with his co-author Melanie Rucinski, published a policy brief on Boston Public School exam schools last year with the Harvard Kennedy School Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, titled Increasing Diversity in Boston’s Exam Schools. Their work looks at data trends on MCAS users and their scoring tendencies on the ISEE, as well as evaluating other data trends that are relevant to looking at current issues and critiques of the ISEE. In this episode, we talk about four ways in which BPS might increase its pipeline of qualified Black and Latinx candidates for admissions to the exam schools, as well as discuss other, more systemic changes that could benefit all students and driver performance up across the district.