Local parents hold dual rallies in protest over recent entrance exam proposal

Parents and alumni rallied Sunday on the front steps of Boston Latin School in both protest and support of a recent controversial proposal to suspend the exam for a year.

Protesters calling for Boston schools to keep the admission exam in place for exam schools rally outside of Boston Latin School.
Protesters calling for Boston schools to keep the admission exam in place for exam schools rally outside of Boston Latin School. –Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“Supporting systems that perpetuate racial disparities is racism,” read one sign. “Exam schools require exams,” read another from across the street. 

The messages of local parents and alumni were clear as they rallied Sunday on the front steps of Boston Latin School in both protest and support of a recent controversial proposal that aims to eliminate the entrance exam for the city’s three esteemed public exam schools next year. 

In July, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius appointed a working group to develop and revise exam school admissions criteria ahead of the 2021 school year — for Boston Latin Academy, Boston Latin School, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on students’ learning.

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“In this time, as we examine all policies with an antiracist lens and with equity at the forefront, I am looking forward to a thoughtful and thorough discussion on exam school admissions and the goal of ensuring our Black and Brown students have the same opportunity and access. I’m grateful to this Working Group for dedicating their time to ensure we have a fair process,” Cassellius said in an August statement. “We must continue to do everything we can to ensure the COVID-19 pandemic does not prevent our students from access to the education they deserve.”

The nine-member task force recommended this month that instead of issuing an exam for the next school year, the district could decide eligibility based on grades, 2019 MCAS scores, and students’ zip codes to ensure geographic and socioeconomic diversity amid the ongoing pandemic. 

They also noted that administering a test safely in a COVID-19 era would be difficult, and the public health crisis has already had a greater impact on families who are low-income, Black, or Latinx. 

In a recent report outlining the proposal, members also ensured that this recommendation does not indicate an “unwillingness to consider using the MAP Growth or other exam(s) as an admissions factor in future years.”

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The Boston School Committee is expected to vote on the proposal Wednesday afternoon, but since the possible change was announced, it has ignited impassioned debate. 

A petition created on Change.org to suspend the entrance exams for a year had garnered nearly 5,000 signatures as of Sunday evening. And a counter-petition, created by Sarah Zaphiris on the same platform, calling on administrators to keep the test had almost 3,000 signatures. 

The divide was also clear outside BLS on Sunday morning, according to The Boston Globe, where many expressed the ways the exam upholds high academic standards, and others voiced the ways in which the exam exacerbates existing inequities, hinders students of color, and students that live in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. 

Zaphiris, a West Roxbury resident, was also at the protest with a sign that said “Keep the test.” The newspaper reported that she’s a BLS alum, has a son in ninth grade at the school, and a daughter in sixth grade who hopes to apply, but she’s concerned that comparing grades from different schools will lead to unfair evaluations of students. 

“If you go to grades only, as opposed to a test and grades, you go to one data point per kid,” Zaphiris told the Globe. “Grades really are apples to oranges.”

She also told the paper that it was disappointing to not see more parent input throughout the working group’s process.

“I hope we conveyed that there are a lot of parents who care about schools, and they would like to be listened to,” Zaphiris said.

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