Boston’s exam schools are hard to get into. The rigorous test needed to gain entrance reflects the schools’ focus on achievement, student engagement and high standards for children on track for higher education.
But in a bid to increase diversity and boost equality, many advocates assert that the exams should be scrapped in favor of selecting students for admission based on other test scores, performance and zip codes.
The goal is worthy, but the way to achieve it misses the point, and does more harm than good.
For this year, the coronavirus controlled the decision, and the Boston School Committee voted unanimously this week to suspend the use of an exam school admissions test for a year.
“To me, this is where we walk the walk in saying that we’re taking the action to provide equity of opportunity for all of our students. And I’m proud to do that,” said School Committee member Michael O’Neill.
Invitations to Boston’s elite exam schools will be made by weighing student performance, zip code and GPA or MCAS results.
There are many who cheer the move.
Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, said, “This will undoubtedly be a defining moment in our city.”
Some did not.
Chengjing Hu, a BPS parent, said the zip code provision of the proposal is “destroying our schools.”
True equity of opportunity comes when all students have the same access to a quality education and study aids — no matter where they live. Equality is reached when all students have access to the same core knowledge, and where exams, no matter how difficult, would cover subjects that they have learned.
Colin Rose, the assistant superintendent at Boston’s Office of Opportunity Gaps told WBUR in March, “Over the last four years that I’ve been in (BPS’s) central office there’s been a lot of conversation around the exam school test in particular and the fact that it doesn’t necessarily align to the things that students are doing in our schools,” he said. “No matter how brilliant you are, if you haven’t been exposed to content, if you haven’t been exposed to the beans of a test, its like walking in to the bar exam cold.”
And that is where the absence of exams fails students, while seeming to promote equality. The content these students have learned will not have changed, and yet, due to school test scores and their zip codes, they could be immersed in a learning situation where knowledge of such content is a given. They may be brilliant kids, but without an equal knowledge base, they’re behind on Day One.
One note from the BPS meeting that looks hopeful: a yes vote to provide opportunities and funding to prep new students enrolled in exam schools and students who wish to apply.
The Office of Opportunity Gaps manages the Exam School Initiative, a racial equity initiative that works to expand access to historically underrepresented students to the district’s exam schools: Rose and other officials have tried to revive a free test-prep program, according to WBUR.
“How do you give a fairer chance to the folks who aren’t privileged and can’t pay $3,000 to prepare for a test,” said Rose.
You boost the quality of the feeder schools, offer free preparation help for students who can’t afford private tutors to help them pass the entrance exams, and work toward equality of education for all students, regardless of zip code.
Because even if exam-less admissions to Boston’s elite schools affords a superior education to more students, there are still many more left behind.