This article has been updated.
The Boston branch of the NAACP launched a petition Friday to suspend admissions testing for Boston’s exam schools — the latest move in a years-long battle over racial disparities at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Sciences.
“We felt that it was extremely responsible for the branch to support at this moment the suspension of the use of an examination this coming fall,” NAACP Boston branch Education Chair José López said in an interview with WGBH News Sunday. “That’s until we are able to, as a district, get a better sense of the teaching and learning that is happening this coming fall and what the real options are for this admission's process moving forward.”
Late last month, the Opportunity and Achievement Gaps Task Force, a group of education experts and advocates, educators and school board members appointed by BPS, voted to formally recommend the suspension of admissions tests in exam schools. In response, Superintendent of Boston Public Schools Brenda Cassellius went in another direction, opting instead for a revised exam with “significant improvements,” according to a statement from Cassellius sent to WGBH News on Sunday.
“The next best step to removing barriers to the exam schools is a new, fairer assessment that is suitable for a diverse population and tests students on material they have learned in school,” Cassellius said in the statement. “This new exam is untimed, is aligned to the Massachusetts state standards, and has been validated and reviewed for bias.”
Three vendors pitched possible exam options for BPS students, and the city ultimately chose NWEA, a firm based in Portland, Ore., that offered curriculum Cassellius said was “aligned with Massachusetts state standards.”
“Administering this new entrance test is an important step forward in expanding access to the exam schools for all students,” Cassellius said.
Though Boston’s three exam schools are considered the highest quality schools in the district, the students attending them do not reflect the city’s diversity, according to a 2018 report from researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School. The researchers concluded that Black and Hispanic students were “substantially less likely to be invited to exam schools,” regardless of academic performance.
“Many talented Black and Hispanic students in BPS do not enroll at the exam schools due to various factors that make it more difficult for them to succeed in the admissions process,” the report said.
Though Black and Hispanic students make up 75% of Boston’s student population, they represent 40% of enrollment at the three exam schools and only 20% of the student body at Boston Latin School, according to the report.
López said that the Harvard research, paired with city data that shows that more than 20% of BPS students have been academically inactive since schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, could spell disaster for students applying to exam schools this fall.
“We know that education really is the greatest equalizer available to children anywhere,” López said. “To have that opportunity hinge on an unproven test in a very uncertain context is an unnecessary risk that we just do not have to assume.”
The petition, which has garnered over 2,000 signatures as of Sunday evening, argues that if the test is not suspended, "the students who are harmed will potentially feel the impact for a lifetime."
"The reality of students and families balancing the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, coupled with the ineffective ad-hoc implementation of virtual instruction, without accurately measuring learning, through the pandemic make this executive decision against the recommendations of the taskforce patently unfair and unjust," the petition reads.
López explained the damage that could be done if admissions testing is held this year.
“There's going to be a very real possibility that we create some irreversible injury to children and families who might otherwise have applied to and been accepted to schools with amazing alumni networks and amazing educational experiences,” López said. “Once students are unable to, in a just and fair manner, engage in the admissions process for these schools, we can't get that back. We could never make those families and children whole again.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this article described the Opportunity and Achievement Gaps Task Force as being made up of BPS School Committee members. It also includes education experts and educators.