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As Trust Erodes, Boston Will Need A New Test For Exam-School Admissions

The Independent School Entrance Examination, or ISEE, has been the gatekeeper test for Boston's three public exam schools for more than two decades.

But it won't play that role going forward — after the apparent disintegration of trust between the district and Education Records Bureau, or ERB, the not-for-profit group that administers the test.

ISEE is predominantly used for admissions to nearly 2,000 private schools. And activists have long argued the test, which does not closely track BPS's curriculum, may contribute to the considerable demographic disparity between the district at large and its three well-regarded exam schools.

But the ISEE's creators are defending it against claims of particular bias. ERB president Tom Rochon wrote member schools saying that the relationship will end, instead citing the district's "misapplication" of the test "one factor in perpetuating admissions outcomes that disproportionately affect students belonging to underrepresented groups."

In an interview with WBUR, Rochon explained that the ISEE comprises four separate sections. Alongside tests of mathematics achievement and reading comprehension — sections that do not closely correspond to BPS's curriculum — are two tests of students' capacity for "reasoning."

Rather than treating those scores separately — which might have surfaced what he called "diamonds in the rough" — Rochon said BPS has historically added the four scores together as they made admissions decisions: "You completely lose lots of information."

Rochon has only run ERB for the past two years, but he said that ERB has raised concerns about that practice directly to the district since at least 2012. At one point, he said, the company even offered to fund a study as to whether it produced valid results.

He said they heard nothing in reply: "We've never received any explanation, nor did they take us up on our offer."

So when the district sought a new contract for a new entrance exam last year, ERB responded with a proposal — alongside a promise that they would not offer the ISEE to the district going forward. "We just felt like we couldn't bring much to the relationship anymore," Rochon said.

BPS superintendent Brenda Cassellius did not respond to a request for comment. She was preparing to present a proposed budget for BPS's next fiscal year to the school committee Wednesday night.

Last March, Cassellius's predecessor in the role, then-interim superintendent Laura Perille, said that the district had no plans to change tests, focusing instead on proposals to expand access, like moving test administration to the school day.

But by the fall, Cassellius called it "likely" that the district would find a new test — without shedding light on the back-and-forth with ERB.

Activists took the letter as proof that the district  isn't doing all that it can to foster diversity in its most sought-after schools.

In a statement, Ivan Epinoza-Madrigal — the head of Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston and a vocal critic of the present regime of exam-school admissions — called Rochon's letter a "smoking gun demonstrating that BPS has deliberately and intentionally refused to consider less discriminatory alternatives to help support students of color."

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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