The Exam School Choice VII, Chasing the Challenge

April 27th is the deadline by which the Parent Imperfect, Liz and Connie must either confirm that Connie is going to Washington Irving Middle School for sixth grade, or give up Connie’s spot to someone on the waiting list. But does this have anything to do with exam schools?

Yes, the Advanced Work Class is part of the exam school system within the Boston Public Schools. Students are assigned to AWC based on their scores on the controversial Stanford 9 Test. That’s an exam, when last we checked. There are not separate schools for AWC, but, despite the best efforts of good principals to the contrary, the advanced classes function very much like “a school within a school.” The exam school system begins when children take the Stanford 9 test in 3th grade.

AWC is quite unabashedly designed to keep a certain demographic in the Boston Public Schools system by guaranteeing a special accommodation for a percentage of the students in grades 4-6 (those who score highest on the test). Does it do that? In my usual unscientific manner, over the past month I’ve asked 24 parents of AWC children if their children would be in the BPS if AWC did not exist and their child was still in a “mainstream” classroom at the school s/he attended for third grade. I only gave them three options: “probably”, “probably not” and “don’t know.” Three people didn’t have an answer or didn’t want to answer. Six people said probably, seven people said that they don’t know and eight people said probably not. Now, these are all people that I know, so it is a very slanted sample in every way, but it does seem to suggest that AWC is keeping some group of families in the public schools.

Another friend (not one of the 24) moved his family to a neighboring system this year in search of better special services for a child. That meant moving their other child from a BPS Advanced Work Class to the highly-respected public schools of the other place. After having one very good year in AWC, the child is, once again, not really engaged with school or challenged by it. It’s not bad, but they’ve seen what their child can do when he’s really engaged. They are thinking about moving back to Boston to get this student back into AWC for sixth grade.

And then there is Connie’s own experience. She attended AWC at the Hennigan School this year for the first time. True to form, we kept her at the Rafael Hernández School for fourth grade, when most AWC kids made the move, and then moved her for fifth grade, which almost no one does. The transition to a new school and a whole new group of kids has not been easy. Almost all of these children were together in fourth grade last year, so it was not easy for Connie to become part of the group. We probably underestimated just how hard the transition would be for a child who was already very self-conscious about being “different” in many ways. She still talks about missing the Hernández and occasionally demands to return, if not tomorrow, then soon.

A big reason we did this was out of this vague sense that she needed more “challenge” in school and would benefit from being with more children who were more fully engaged with school. In the beginning, Connie was very conscious that her AWC teacher spent much less time doing crowd control with the kids. This has changed somewhat as time has passed–with Connie becoming one of those requiring control–but the teacher still does much less re-directing than her fourth-grade teacher at the Hernández. This makes a huge difference in the way Connie experiences school.

At first, Connie was also very excited about the academics, but that, too, has shifted a bit with the passage of time. I asked her last night how she now compares the academics at the two schools. She said: (1) Math: More advanced for sure in AWC, but the teacher must go very slowly because some of the kids are having trouble. (2) Science: About the same level of difficulty, but the AWC Science is more interesting; (3) ELA: About the same level of difficulty (she had a great reading and writing teacher in fourth grade), but it moves a little quicker at the Hennigan. (4) Social Studies: About the same difficulty, but the Hennigan is more interesting. In Specialties, she gives the edge to the Hennigan, mostly because of her swimming class, which she loves. The BIG difference is Spanish. There is no Spanish instruction at the Hennigan (although almost half of the students are Latinos and there is much Spanish spoken). Having half of her academics in Spanish was a big part of her experience at the RHS, and learning to speak Spanish well was something that made her feel quite special. She has kept up her Spanish pretty well by speaking consistently to her father and by reading some books, but she really misses the dual language curriculum.

Vince stayed at the Hernández for eight years, through sixth grade. That decision had its good and less good aspects. In search of “challenge” we’ve taken Connie out of the RHS and put her in a situation where she may well be in a new school each year for fifth, sixth and seventh grades. That’s a lot of transition in a young girl’s life.  Is the “challenge” worth it? We’ll be better able to answer that one later on…maybe.

Against that backdrop, we’ll soon decide what to do for sixth grade. Connie now knows that many of her classmates from the Hennigan will be in Grade 6 AWC at the Irving, and that’s a big plus. Friends whose kids have attended AWC at the Irving speak positively of the principal and just rave about one of the AWC teachers. But given that she’s often almost desperate to get out of school at the end of a six-hour day, Connie is nervous about the nine-hour extended day at the Irving. She’s also nervous about what happens with all of the things that she does after school. Those are at least as important to her as school is.

After several attempts, we’ve finally arranged a visit to the Irving’s extended day program for tomorrow (We can’t call it “after-school” or Connie will definitely dig in her heels because of her after-school experience at the Hernández, which was not pretty). She’ll at least get to see what the kids do in hours 8 and 9, and maybe get to ask a few questions. Then, very soon thereafter, we’ll decide. In truth, there aren’t a lot of options. She is on the waiting list for AWC at both the Curley and the Ohrenberger, but those lists don’t tend to move. We could probably also go crawling back to the Hernández with hat in hand, but that seems fraught with potential problems. Most likely, she’ll be going to school for nine hours a day next year at the Irving.



Filed under Exam Schools

8 responses to “The Exam School Choice VII, Chasing the Challenge

  1. Kate

    It’s a long day, although I hope the non-academics offered in the extended day will help your daughter feel like it’s not all about homework and school. There’s a lot of good sports and arts stuff! And as far as AWC teachers, they should all be outstanding, not just one of them. I hope that changes.

    • Sounds like the voice of experience, Kate. Thanks. I expect that there are a lot of good things going on after school. It’s just the idea that she must be there for nine hours every day. I, too, would hope for all excellent teachers, but we’re excited when we hear rave reviews of any teacher.

  2. Deb

    I thought the other purpose of AWC classes was to increase the proportion of kids in the exam schools who came from BPS (as opposed to private schools.) i.e. that it was about broadening access to the exam schools and had had some success in that regard (increasing diversity of the exam schools)


    • Thanks, Deb. That’s really interesting. I don’t hear that talked about a lot in discussions of AWC, but I may not be listening to the right people. I know it wasn’t mentioned in the one public presentation I saw by the woman who runs the program. If increasing exam school diversity is a goal of AWC, I don’t think it’s working. Ever since 1999, when the BPS started admitting children to AWC based exclusively on test scores, diversity in the advanced classes has generally declined (according to The Globe). I don’t have numbers, but I feel quite certain that AWC has contributed to less diverse exam schools.

  3. Deb

    I don’t know — I was surprised by the person I learned that from too, but he did have enough history and numbers in his explanation that it made sense. There was a court decision in there somewhere that prevented BPS from using race as a factor in exam school admissions or AWC placement (was that what happened in 1999, when they started going by scores alone?) So if you think things have become less diverse since then it is possible that the court decision was the major factor and that AWC was actually a mitigating factor*?

    The BPS website school demographics page actually does let you page back through the years (date arrow L upper corner) but only as far back as 1995. There were definitely more black students at the school in 1995-1999 than there are now. But overall slightly smaller percentage of white students now than then. Boston Latin School is currently 48% white, and the non-white population has more Asians and fewer Black and Hispanic students than BPS as a whole (and also far fewer low income students than BPS as a whole.)

    I would be curious to see statistics over the years about what percent of BLS students come to BLS from private schools vs. BPS, and whether that has changed over the years. But have no idea where to find those.


    *keeping in mind as I write this that it’s also possible AWC has NOT been a mitigating factor, if some of the same disparities seen in the Latin demographics are already at work in who gets to go to AWC.

    • I remember that moment well. There was no court decision, but the School Committee caved on the assumption that there would be a challenge and that the court would rule against the use of race in Boston school assignment. That also meant that the BPS could not use race as a factor in assigning kids to AWC. You’re right, the exam schools are not necessarily less diverse, but the percentages of African-American and Latino students are down. I, too, would like to see the numbers on percentages of students from the BPS in the exam schools. I wonder if there would be a legal challenge to a system that gave preference to BPS students in the exam schools.

  4. Deb

    Interesting to look at the other 2 exam schools. O’Bryant comes really close to mirroring the SES percentiles of the rest of BPS, and fairly close in racial demographics to the rest of BPS (more asians, fewer hispanics, but black/white percentages are almost the same at the O’Briant school as they are in the system as a whole.)

    Boston Latin Academy has definitely become more diverse over the past 15 years; was 41% white, now is 28% white. And has better economic diversity than BLS.


    • Good points, all. It’s easy to see all of the exam schools through the lens of the one attended by your son. You’re taking me in the direction of a post on diversity that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I really do appreciate all of your thoughtful feedback.

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