In the wake of a scandal this month involving the maker of the ISEE Exam School test and the Boston Public Schools, Supt. Brenda Cassellius reported this week they have begun to seek new vendors for the exam school test – an annual ball of stress for parents of children headed to 7th or 9th grades next year.
The Boston Public Schools requires students to take an exam to enter either Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy or John D. O’Bryan School of Math and Science. The test is taken in the previous fall for entrance into either 7th grade or 9th grade, and many parents spend considerable amounts of money preparing their kids with tutoring for the test months in advance.
That test has been the ISEE test that is put out by ERB Company for many years, but after much internal – and now public – controversy, that test may not be what students take next fall.
“Boston Public Schools (BPS) is committed to, and actively working to expand equitable access to our exam schools,” said Cassellius. “Almost immediately upon my arrival in Boston, it was brought to my attention that there were concerns that the ISEE test was potentially creating barriers for some students seeking admission to BPS’ exam schools, particularly underrepresented students.
“As I’ve previously stated, often and publicly, this is the final year of the BPS contract with ERB,” she continued. “As is the case when any contract expires, we will release a new Request for Proposals (RFP) which we expect to issue within the next week. That RFP is being written in a way that specifically addresses some of our concerns, including that it be aligned to the Massachusetts state standards and that it is reviewed and validated for bias.”
On Tuesday this week, BPS reported they had issued an RFP for a new test provider. Cassellius said on Tuesday the goal is to pick an entrance exam aligned with Massachusetts curriculum standards, one that is bias-free and measures student readiness for the rigors of an exam high school. She also said it was the next step forward in furthering equitable access to exam schools for black and Latinx students, which she said have been underrepresented historically in the three exam schools.
“Creating more equitable opportunities for students to get a great education is one of our most important priorities,” said Cassellius. “We believe the new RFP will help level the playing field for students seeking admission to our exam schools by offering a test that actually assesses student’s knowledge of content they’re taught in class and has been rigorously reviewed to ensure it is free of bias. This is a good next step in our efforts to make sure our exam school student body is representative of all the students BPS serves.”
Added Mayor Martin Walsh, “It’s important that any student who wishes to attend one of Boston’s exam schools is well-prepared and has an equitable path-way to do so. We have made significant progress in recent years to expand access to the test for exam schools, and this RFP is another opportunity for BPS to continue that important work.”
To develop the RFP, BPS participated in an extensive process that included input and recommendations from an internal working group, as well as community feedback, with the goal of ensuring the RFP results in an assessment that tests students on material they have learned in school. BPS is asking all interested vendors that submit a proposal to demonstrate their assessment is aligned to Massachusetts state learning standards and is bias-free.
BPS aims to award the new contract to a vendor in June 2020.
Concerns have been floating around about the test for many years within Boston Public Schools (BPS), and the test manufacturer says it has warned BPS over a period of many years that it is using the test incorrectly. That’s a fact that Cassellius and BPS dispute, but one that the test company says is true.
At issue in particular is that BPS has taken all four categories in the test and lumped them together into one score. The test company, and many private schools, consider all four parts separately and not as one whole score.
BPS said it has looked into the allegations that ERB has been reaching out for many years about the test, but they have found no validity to the claim. In a statement, the schools said they have found no truth to the claims made by ERB.
Cassellius said she refused to work with ERB on a bias study of the test just after she arrived because it could have been a conflict of interest under the new RFP process.
“In addition to setting high expectations for our students and staff, I set high expectations around the way we operate as a district,” she said. “I declined participation in the validation study to avoid giving undue advantage to any one particular vendor who might respond to an RFP in the future and to protect the integrity of our public procurement process.”
What many parents want to know at the moment is whether or not they are wasting their money preparing their children for a test that may not be given.
While ISEE could be the selected vendor, that is not yet known and the RFP could attract any number of new testing companies. BPS sent the required information to the City for the RFP to be advertised early this week, and those bids won’t come in for many weeks.
BPS said in a statement that they would continue to use an entrance exam of some kind, in addition to other existing admission requirements that are currently used.
They also said that those already in test prep programs should speak with the provider to ensure the materials are appropriate for the student’s grade and aligned to Massachusetts state curriculum standards. Cassellius said the best test prep is daily attendance in school and learning grade-level reading and math lessons.
Earlier this year, in January, Cassellius’s Exam School Initiative report was issued to the School Committee. That report was commissioned to look at equity in the Exam Schools, and is currently being considered by the Committee.