Brandeis prof. comments on racial discrimination in standardized testing

February 28, 2020

The Education Records Bureau and the Boston Public School system decided to end their affiliations in the spring of last year, according to an article in The Boston Globe. Joshua Goodman, an Associate Professor of Economics at Brandeis, told the Globe that he worked previously on a study which assessed racial descrimination within the school systems’ exams. The Bureau chose to cut ties with the city’s school district after years of the school system misusing the scores on exams to place a disadvantage on “underrepresented” students in the admissions process into specialized schools, according to an email sent to the Globe by the Bureau. 

Tom Rochon, the President of the Education Records Bureau, said that for the past eight years, the Education Records Bureau has been trying to bring attention to the issue of testing discrimination, though nothing came of it, according to the article.

The article said that officials from the Boston school district claim that they were the ones to end relations with the Education Records Bureau because they wanted to find a “fairer and more equitable” test administrator. 

The Boston Public School system has three specialized exam schools—Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. To be admitted into these schools, admissions counselors look at student’s grades and scores on the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE). There has been public controversy over the fairness of the ISEE in recent years, according to the article—civil rights groups have argued that the admission process to enter these exam schools places low-income students at a disadvantage to those with higher socioeconomic backgrounds. The test claims to not focus on the same material covered by the state standard that the Boston Public School curriculum follows. This disparity causes private school applicants to have an advantage over other students since the private school curriculum aligns their teaching with the material on the test, according to the article. Most of the private school applicants are white. Students from wealthier backgrounds are also able to afford private tutors to help review material on the exam, according to the article. 

“Given that it’s an exam that is completely foreign to students and requires parents and outside resources to help prepare them, it doesn’t make sense as a tool for identifying which students are going to be able to succeed in a rigorous academic environment,” said Goodman, regarding the situation. 

In a brief released in 2018, Goodman and his team found that the Independent Schools Entrance Exam potentially eliminated thousands of minority students from being admitted into any of the three exam schools. 

According to the brief, “the exam schools’ student bodies do not reflect the diversity of the wider district.” 

The brief states that 75 percent of the Boston Public School population is either black or Latino; however, only 40 percent of students at exam schools are black or Latino. The largest exam school, as well as the largest public high school in Boston, is Boston Latin School, yet only 20 percent of the school’s student body is black or Latino, according to the brief. 

Reports of racial bias began after a number of student reports at the Boston Latin School were released claiming there was racial bias in the school’s admission system. According to the brief, an official investigation began in 2016 to look into the claims made about the potential discrimination, which resulted in the establishment of the “Opportunity and Achievement Gap Policy” that was meant to create equality in the specialized schools administration process.

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