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OPINION

At exam schools, getting in the door is not enough

Boston Public Schools’ new, equitable admissions policy for exam schools should also make respect part of its mandate.

Gabriella Gilbert taught a pre algebra class at Boston Latin, the Exam School Initiative, a program that helps fifth graders prepare for the rigorous entrance exam they must ace to get into Boston Latin School and the city's two other exam schools. Asian American, white, Latino, and Black Bostonians alike should celebrate the historic shift in admission to the storied exam schools.
Gabriella Gilbert taught a pre algebra class at Boston Latin, the Exam School Initiative, a program that helps fifth graders prepare for the rigorous entrance exam they must ace to get into Boston Latin School and the city's two other exam schools. Asian American, white, Latino, and Black Bostonians alike should celebrate the historic shift in admission to the storied exam schools.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Early Thursday, the morning after a historic decision that would increase racial equity in admissions to Boston’s exam schools, former Boston School Committee chair Michael Loconto resigned. Ironically, Loconto did so after making a racist comment during the committee’s discussion, mocking commenters’ names when he thought his microphone was off.

Many saw Loconto’s remarks as evidence of the lack of inclusion in Boston’s exam schools. However, aside from news reports, few have called critical attention to the ethnic backgrounds of the people whose names Loconto was mocking — they were Asian.

Loconto’s telling slip feeds into the worst fears of many Asian parents — that white leaders implementing policies to increase access for Black and Latino families are actually working to limit the success of Asian Americans. Asian students are overrepresented at all three exam schools — even more so than white students. At Boston Latin, for example, over 29 percent of students are Asian, while just 9 percent of Boston Public School students overall are Asian. Opponents of affirmative action in a lawsuit against Harvard have made a similar claim of anti-Asian discrimination, in an effort to gain Asian allies.

But Asian parents should not fall for this trap. The history of standardized tests like the SAT and the Independent School Entrance Exam is tied to the history of eugenics in the United States. Early eugenicists developed intelligence tests to demonstrate the superiority of whites. While the district planned to pivot from the ISEE to a new test this year (NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress Growth), historically shifts in admissions criteria have always maintained the interests of elites. While Asian American families have brought skills in test-taking and test preparation common in Asia to test-based entrance exams like the ISEE and NEWA, this does not diminish the ways in which those tests systematically exclude Black and Latinx youth.

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In addition, these tests may not select the best students. Studies of college students repeatedly show that high school grades are better predictors of college grades than a student’s SAT score — even the College Board’s studies find this. This suggests that the new form of selection for the exam schools, in which previous grades feature more prominently, may do even better in selecting students poised to succeed at the rigorous exam schools.

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Asian American, white, Latino, and Black Bostonians alike should celebrate this historic shift in admission to the storied exam schools. This is a win for justice and equity. All children in Boston deserve a shot at attending the exam schools, and it seems fair that if the schools must be selective, then the top students in every neighborhood deserve a chance.

At the same time, in an age where our president disparages immigrants and calls the coronavirus pandemic the “China virus," anti-Asian comments — and the sentiments behind them — are unacceptable. They undermine efforts to make all children feel included. Just because many Asian Americans have figured out how to ace the ISEE doesn’t mean anti-Asian racism is over. Loconto’s remarks show that getting in the door of elite institutions is one thing, and being seen with dignity and respect is another. While Loconto recognized the importance of opening doors for Black and Latinx Bostonians, his lack of respect for names that don’t sound like those of his own heritage suggests opening the door is not enough.

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The Boston School Committee has done the right thing by changing the admissions criteria to the exam schools. Now it must commit to ensuring each child in those schools feels seen and respected. Mayor Marty Walsh should consider carefully Loconto’s replacement. We need a leader who will not only open doors for all children, but also treat them with respect when they walk in.

Natasha Warikoo is professor of sociology at Tufts University, and author of “The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities.”