Smoking Gun Reveals Extent of Boston’s Intentional Exclusion of Students of Color from Exam Schools


Test Maker Slams Boston for “Misapplication” of Exam and “Refusal” to Make Needed Reforms

In a bombshell announcement, the makers of the test used by Boston Public Schools (BPS) in its exam school admissions process disclosed that it repeatedly warned BPS that it was misusing the test in a manner that unfairly excluded and harmed students of color. The announcement condemns the City for refusing to make much-needed reforms and for burying the racial implications from the public.  

We have long maintained that the Educational Records Bureau’s (ERB) Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) is not a fair or reliable measure of student aptitude, and that Black and Latinx students bear the brunt of the disproportionate impact of the test, which does not track the BPS curriculum. The recent statement by the President of ERB reveals the problem is even worse than parents and advocates realized:  over the course of at least eight years, ERB directly raised concerns with BPS over its use of the ISEE, and BPS refused to work with the ERB to reform the admissions process. BPS’s most recent refusal led to the ERB’s decision to no longer supply the ISEE for BPS exam school admissions. 

As the ERB explained, BPS’s “misapplication of ISEE scores has been one factor in perpetuating admissions outcomes that disproportionately affect students belonging to underrepresented groups, thus reducing their access to the educational opportunities available in the exam schools.”

“This revelation from the entity that creates and administers the ISEE is damning to BPS and City Hall,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, Executive Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR). “It is, literally, a smoking gun demonstrating that BPS has deliberately and intentionally refused to consider less discriminatory alternatives to help support students of color who are striving to attend Boston Latin School and other elite exam schools,” Espinoza-Madrigal added.

“It is important to note that BPS has hidden from parents and the public that its use of the ISEE was deemed racially problematic by the exam administrators themselves,” said Oren Sellstrom, Litigation Director of LCR.  Sellstrom added that “the timing of the release of this information is especially significant given that it is Black History Month and in light of the upcoming NAACP’s 111th Annual National Convention in Boston.”

LCR demands that BPS immediately cease and desist from using the ISEE including in the current admissions cycle. If BPS does not voluntarily invalidate the test scores, we stand ready to represent parents who want to sue the City for discriminating against their children. 

LCR also demands that BPS terminate the individuals responsible for refusing to address the discriminatory impact of the exam school admissions process, as well as those who concealed this information from parents, students, and the public. Given that BPS is directly involved in this unfolding racial scandal, it cannot be trusted to investigate itself or to hold itself accountable. As such, LCR calls upon the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education to launch an immediate investigation regarding BPS’s efforts to perpetuate the exclusion and underrepresentation of Black and Latinx students in exam schools. 

“BPS must be held accountable,” said Espinoza-Madrigal, adding that “exam schools belong to all Bostonians, including the students of color who have been systematically excluded from equal educational opportunities. Shame on BPS and City Hall.”

ERB’s announcement is available below. 

———- Forwarded message ———
From: Tom Rochon <>
Date: Tue, Feb 4, 2020 at 3:29 PM
Subject: ERB’s Relationship With Boston Public Schools

As a valued ERB member, I wanted to alert you to an ongoing matter in the relationship between ERB and the Boston Public Schools District. 

For 25 years, Boston Public Schools has used the ISEE from ERB as one key component in admission decisions to its three selective, exam-based high schools. In April 2019 we informed the District that we would no longer make the ISEE available for this purpose after completion of the fall 2019 testing cycle. District leaders have not yet chosen to make this information public, but when they do so we want to be sure you have the necessary background.   

Our decision to no longer supply the ISEE for admission purposes in the BPS exam schools was made because the District continues to utilize ISEE scores in ways that do not align with ERB implementation guidelines or best practices in admissions. That misapplication of ISEE scores has been one factor in perpetuating admissions outcomes that disproportionately affect students belonging to underrepresented groups, thus reducing their access to the educational opportunities available in the exam schools.  

ERB has requested multiple times that the District use ISEE scores in an appropriate way, for example by stopping their practice of summing the four measures of verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, mathematical achievement and reading comprehension into a single score.  We also attempted several times over the last eight years to work with District leaders to identify the most equitable and valid way to weight ISEE scores by offering to fund the appropriate research studies, but we were always rebuffed. The most recent refusal from the District to undertake a validity study and reform their admission process came last year, leading us to notify them that ERB will no longer be part of their process. District leaders have chosen not to make that fact public but have instead begun to point to the ISEE as the root cause of their admissions disparities. 

As those statements have become more public, I wanted to reach out personally to assure you of the validity of the ISEE assessment when used appropriately, and of ERB’s commitment to advancing educational access for all qualified students. I hope your experience with ERB and with ISEE speak to those truths. We are proud that thousands of schools around the world use and trust the ISEE in their admissions processes, and we are always ready to work with any members to examine how ISEE scores might best be used to identify students who will thrive in their school.

If you have any questions about ISEE use in the Boston Public Schools, or in your own school, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. 

Thank you as always for your partnership and for your continued commitment to our shared vision of academic opportunity and excellence.