Exam Schools, Achievement, and ISEE Entrance Exams

What are exam schools?

Exam schools are selective public high schools that aim to meet the needs of academically talented students. Not charter schools and not private schools, these selective public schools accept new students based on student’s grades and entrance exam scores.

In Boston, admission is based entirely on a student’s grades and test scores from the Independent Schools Entrance Exam (ISEE).

However, exam schools’ mission of “public education” often clash with their policies of selectivity.

Why go to an exam school?

Proponents of exam schools praise their rigorous academics which, they say, leads to a more enriching and focused overall school environment. By catering to an area’s top academic achievers, exam schools implement a “whole school” approach where similarly focused peers are believed to reinforce a dedication to high achievement.

The exam school environments are “competitive but supportive, energized yet calm,” Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Jessica Hockett wrote wrote in their book Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools. The book documents 165 exam schools in the nation.

Their study found that exam schools offered a significantly advanced overall course of study with some form of college-level work offered at each, often for college credit. Additionally, most exam schools engage in supplementary private fundraising to support clubs, smaller classes, transportation, or other school features.

“[Exam schools] provide safety (physical, emotional, intellectual), short- and long-term academic and career opportunities, and social benefits,” they write.

Do exam schools work?

Despite reputations of high achievement and as hubs of high college placement, some may argue it is more the students’ innate abilities — which the schools actively seek out — than the schools themselves that are responsible.

Although students at some exam schools claim exhaustion from taking course loads with as many as six AP classes in a semester in pursuit of an outstanding high school transcript, scholars believe there is an “elite illusion” when it comes to exam school curriculum.

A 2011 study looked at students who, by a couple of points, made it into an exam school and their counterparts who fell just short. In spite of their exposure to higher performing peers, exam school students who just cleared the admittance cutoff fared only marginally better on standardized testing than the students who attended non-exam public schools.

What are the Massachusetts exam schools?

Who is eligible to attend exam schools?

For the Boston Exam Schools, students must be Boston residents to apply for and attend an exam school.

A candidate must officially be in 6th grade to take the test for grade 7, 8th to take the test for grade 9, and 9th to take the test for grade 10 (John D. O’Bryant School only).

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How do I apply to an exam school?

  1. Registration forms completed and returned to principal/headmaster in September
  2. Residency verification for students currently attending private, parochial, charter schools, METCO, schools outside of Boston, and students being home schooled in October
  3. Special Accommodation request deadline in October
  4. Take Independent Schools Entrance Exam (ISEE) early November
  5. Candidates apply to specific examination schools by making choices on the Candidate Release Form. Return form by the end of January
  6. Invitations to examination schools for the following school year are mailed out Mid-March

Each year, BPS releases an exam school bulletin with specific instructions and timelines for applying to an exam school. More information is available here.

What is the ISEE entrance exam?

The Independent Schools Entrance Exam (ISEE) is a standardized test consisting of multiple components: Verbal Reasoning (20 min.), Quantitative Reasoning (35 min.), Reading Comprehension (25 min.), and Mathematics Achievement (30 min.)

The test may be taken at three levels. The Lower Level is for candidates entering grades 5 and 6. The Middle Level test is for candidates entering grades 7 and 8. The Upper Level test is for candidates entering grades 9 and 10. Note: Admittance to exam schools is usually for grades 7 and 9 only; grade 10 in certain circumstances.

View a pdf of ISEE testing levels, number of questions, and timing

When is the ISEE exam?

The Boston ISEE is administered on a Saturday in the beginning of November each year at twelve special test centers within Boston Public Schools.

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How do I register my child for the ISEE entrance exam?

Registration materials will be distributed at all eligible Boston Public Schools and many
Private, Parochial, and Charter Schools in the Boston area. Materials may also be picked up
at any local branch of the Boston Public Library.

Parents must complete the ISEE registration form and return to the principal/headmaster of
the child’s current school no later than the end of September.

If your child’s school does not accept ISEE registration forms, mail to ISEE Operation
Office, Tweedy Tattersall, 423 Morris Street Durham, MA 27701.

If you are not currently a resident of the City of Boston, you may register for a national test
administration directly with the Education Records Bureau.

The exam is free of charge to eligible students who currently reside in the City of Boston. Registration fees apply for non-residents: $100 to register online, $120 to register by phone.


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