Boston Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said Thursday that she is committed to helping disadvantaged students succeed, speaking a day after a civil rights group accused her of being out of touch with the issues many black and Latino students encounter in trying to secure seats at the city’s exam schools.
“I think talking about equity is always a sensitive topic,” said Cassellius, who is African-American and noted that she grew up in poverty. “It is my hope the community will come together and put children at the center, so we can create great schools in every neighborhood.”
Lawyers for Civil Rights said Cassellius missed the mark on Wednesday when she expressed shock on a radio program over the high cost of administering the Independent School Entrance Exam — $140 per student. In the WGBH interview, she questioned whether there was a less expensive entrance exam the city could use for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science.
The civil rights group, which is pushing Cassellius to change the admission requirements, contends she should have focused instead on the inherent inequities in relying on an admission test that is not aligned with the school system’s curriculum. The group says affluent families have an edge because they can spend thousands of dollars on private test preparation programs.
The controversy has underscored the perilous local politics awaiting the superintendent as she learns her way in a new job. Who gets admitted to the city’s exam schools — and how — has been an incendiary issue in Boston for several years, and one that has eluded public consensus.
In an interview with the Globe Thursday, Cassellius said she has no immediate plans to explore replacing the exam. But she added that discussions will eventually come up because the contract with the vendor for the ISEE expires this year, and the school system will need to go on the market to seek a new round of bids, a move that could result in a different test.
The school system expects to spend about $600,000 this year administering the ISEE to both public and private school students who live in Boston and who are seeking exam-school admission. The system also is planning to spend about $200,000 on programs to help students do well on the exam.
Cassellius said she has a duty as superintendent to ensure that every dollar is spent appropriately and noted that the per-student cost of the ISEE is three times more expensive than the college placement test used in her former state of Minnesota. But she said she is not immediately recommending replacing the ISEE.
She also said that it was premature for her to respond to a letter the NAACP and Lawyers for Civil Rights sent to her three weeks ago asking her to make specific commitments to change the exam school admission requirements. The groups wanted a response last week and are now exploring legal options.
“These issues are deep and complex and require a lot of thought, and I haven’t had an opportunity to meet with everyone in the community and understand the community’s needs and desires,” said Cassellius, who started the job on July 1. “I have been promising authentic community engagement.”
Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a nonprofit focused on youth labor market development, said he empathizes with the predicament that Cassellius is in — having to address a controversial issue like exam-school admission policies less than two weeks on the job under a cloud of potential litigation.
“I just fear that litigation will actually stifle public conversation and the potential for collaboration and compromise,” he said. “We need to give our new superintendent the space necessary to lead.”
Many activists and political leaders said the time is right to talk about change.
“If we truly care about equity and we truly care about eliminating the opportunity and achievement gap, then we have to be willing to have conversations about changing the admission policy,” said City Councilor Kim Janey. “We know the admission policy is not serving students of color well, and there are good policy recommendations on the table and we should be exploring those.”
The civil rights groups have put forward several ideas, including guaranteeing admission to the top-performing students from every ZIP code or every elementary and middle school and relying on more holistic measures that would include a student’s special skills in such areas as the arts or athletics.
None of those proposals has the support of the Boston Latin School Association, although the influential alumni group is open to exploring a change in admission tests.
“The association believes a test is a critical component for merit-based access to the exam schools but regards the ISEE as just one among several tests that may be used for determining the students who are the best candidates for admission to the exam schools,” said Peter Kelly, the association’s president.
City Council President Andrea Campbell, a Latin School graduate, said it is imperative that all students, especially black and Latino students who make up the vast majority of the district’s enrollment, have equitable access to that institution and be prepared for its academic rigor. Black and Latino students account for only 20 percent of Latin School’s enrollment, the least diverse of the three exam schools.
“It’s not a meritocracy if a large percentage of our students attend elementary and middle schools that are not teaching and preparing them for exam school access,” Campbell said. “Instead, it’s a system based on how much money your family has for prep or private coursework, and what ZIP code your family lives in thus affording you access to a quality pre-k through sixth-grade experience that will ensure you get into Latin.”
But she added equal attention needs to be paid to bolstering the quality of the city’s open-enrollment high schools and its only vocational high school, Madison Park.
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who chairs the council’s Education Committee, also stressed the need for a two-pronged approach in boosting exam-school diversity and the academic quality of the other high schools.
“I am a proponent of having a test for entrance to exam schools in Boston, but I’m open to a conversation about which is the best test for students to take,” Essaibi George said, adding that a test should ideally align with the school system’s curriculum and that “it is also important to look at the cost.”
Cassellius has expressed a strong desire to overhaul the city’s high schools and to boost the quality of the lower-grade schools so more students of all backgrounds are on a better footing to get into exam schools.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh voiced his support for Cassellius.
“Superintendent Cassellius was chosen to lead Boston Public Schools because of her focus on equity and her proven track record of listening to everyone in the community in an effort to build broad consensus,” he said in a statement. “We share the goal of ensuring our exam schools maintain their incredible tradition of excellence, and I have full confidence in her ability to navigate this district on a path that ensures every single student has access to an excellent school.”