Competition is stiff to get into Boston's elite exam schools, like Boston Latin, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O'Bryant. Middle school students must first do well on the Independent School Entrance Exam, or ISEE. It's also used by several local private schools. Admission is then based on the score and a student's grade point average. Yet it turns out that three consecutive contracts worth nearly $4 million have been awarded by the Boston schools to a single testing firm, without competitive bids from other testing companies. Molly Boigon is with WGBH’s Learning Curve team and broke this story. She spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard about her reporting. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: Can you tell us more about this company that keeps getting the contract?
Molly Boigon: Sure, the company makes the ISEE, which is pretty standard for many independent schools in the area, and also for the Boston Public Schools. It's designed to predict success in high school. So a high score on the test is supposed to mean that a student is ready for exam school work. The problem is the company that makes the ISEE evaluated its own test to determine the relationship between scores on the exam and performance in high school, but the sample size was not sufficient for kids of color. So they don't actually know what the relationship is between scores on the test and performance in high school for kids of color.
Howard: And kids of color in the Boston schools makes up 86 percent of the district, right?
Boigon: That's right. And actually, the district requires that tests that they're using for entrance into the Boston exam schools provide “evidence that the assessments are appropriate for a diverse student population,” which the test maker did not provide in this case.
Howard: Now, you also talked with the Boston Public Schools themselves, right?
Boigon: I did, and they said that they were aware of the study and cognizant of its limitations and that they awarded the contract to the test maker anyway. I was at the school committee meeting this week and I spoke with interim superintendent Laura Perille, and I asked her if, at the expiration of the current contract there is still the sole bidder the company behind the ISEE, would they do any outreach. This is what she said:
Sound from Interim Superintendent Laura Perille: Yes. The whole purpose to seeking a new bid would be to make sure that we take a fresh look at who those possible vendors could be.
Howard: Well, there's been talk of just dispensing with outside vendors and using the MCAS - it's a test taken by all the public school students in the state of Massachusetts, instead of the ISEE test. What do you know about that?
Boigon: That's right. So there is a call by some parents and civil rights groups to use the MCAS in lieu of the ISEE. These people talk about a couple of issues with ISEE. The first is that there's material on the test that isn't covered in curriculum by the time that sixth graders are taking the test. An example that people bring up frequently is algebra. So that advantages kids who can afford test prep and learn algebra before taking the ISEE. Many of those kids are white. The other problem is the Harvard Rappaport Institute did a study that found that kids of color who performed well on the MCAS did not perform as well on the ISEE as their similarly-performing white peers. So high performing kids of color don't do that well on the ISEE. And the report also found that basing exam school admissions on the MCAS instead of the ISEE would increase black and Hispanic enrollment at Boston Latin School by 50 percent. So we mentioned earlier that the district is 86 percent students of color, and Boston Latin in particular has had problems in the past with diversifying its student body to represent the larger district.
Howard: Where do things stand right now?
Boigon: Well, the ISEE was just administered last weekend, and we're currently in a one-year contract, and next year the district is going to administer the test in all sixth grade classrooms across the district.
Howard: So parents don't need to sign up for it, it will be administered unless you opt out.
Boigon: That's right. Kids do have the option to opt out, but this is an effort to get more black and Hispanic students to take the test in the first place, to hopefully increase their enrollment at the exam schools.
Howard: Despite the push for it, it looks like the MCAS is not going to be the test that's going to be given for the exam schools. But that means we're back to the drawing board in terms of the bids and the process of bidding. Where do we stand on that?
Boigon: I asked interim superintendent Laura Perille about how people can feel confident that the district is doing its due diligence when it comes to evaluating bids and making sure that they meet the requirements set out by the invitation for bids. Here's what she said:
Sound from interim Superintendent Laura Perille: I can't speak to the past decisions made except to say that there are clear procurement guidelines that the district seeks to meet.
Boigon: And those guidelines are under a lot more scrutiny these days.