Boston will suspend admissions testing for its three elite exam schools for a year, in an effort to address educational inequities that have disadvantaged students of color during the pandemic.
The School Committee unanimously approved the temporary change in a 7-0 vote shortly after 1:30 am following a marathon public meeeting that began at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
“I did a big exhale there and I think we can all take a step back and breathe,” school committee chairman Michael Loconto said after the last vote was cast.
“Some may be disappointed, other families might feel a moment of hope, like something far out of their reach is now attainable,” added committee member Jeri Robinson. “I hope we will all come together.”
The new admissions procedures also are intended to address longstanding concerns about the systemic racial inequities that have favored white students at the city’s top schools: Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Sciences.
For the upcoming round of admissions this winter, seats will be offered based on students’ pre-COVID grade-point averages and MCAS scores. Twenty percent of the invitations to the schools will be reserved for the top-ranking students by GPA citywide.
The remaining 80 percent of invitations will be distributed based on GPA and a student’s zip code. Each zip code will be allocated a number of seats that is proportionate to how many school-age children live there. Students from zip codes with the lowest median income will be given first pick of the school they want to attend.
The plan was created by a working group appointed by Superintendent Brenda Cassellius after she faced the threat of a lawsuit.
NAACP Boston President Tanisha Sullivan, who led the working group, said it met a dozen times in August and September.
"We will achieve greater geographic diversity,” Sullivan said when the plan was unveiled earlier this month. “More neighborhoods across the city of Boston will have students attending an exam school. We are also increasing the socioeconomic diversity.”
Students will be selected based on one of two criteria: meeting or exceeding expectations on the English Language Arts or Math MCAS exam, or earning a GPA of B or higher during the first two terms of the 2019-20 school year.
The exam schools have been the subject of longstanding charges of bias. Although considered the highest quality schools in the district, the students attending them have not reflected the city’s racial-ethnic diversity, according to a 2018 report from researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The researchers concluded that Black and Hispanic students were “substantially less likely to be invited to exam schools,” regardless of academic performance.
For years, the district had been basing admissions to the schools on a student’s grades and the results of the Independent School Entrance Exam, a test used by many independent private schools, including Boston College High School and Milton Academy.
The ISEE, however, has not been shown to accurately predict the high school performance of Black and Hispanic students, who make up the bulk of the district’s enrollment.
Lawyers for Civil Rights demanded that the test be dropped in Boston, threatening a lawsuit against Cassellius just as she was moving into the position.
Earlier this year, the school system stopped using that test. Cassellius, who had cited concerns about its cost, contracted with a new testing company, Oregon-based NWEA, saying it offered an exam “aligned with Massachusetts state standards.”
“Administering this new entrance test is an important step forward in expanding access to the exam schools for all students,” Cassellius said then.
But in July, the Boston NAACP launched a petition to suspend admissions testing for city’s exam schools during the pandemic.
José López, education chair of the Boston NAACP, said that the Harvard research, paired with city data that show that more than 20% of Boston Public School students were academically inactive when schools closed last spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, could spell disaster for students applying to exam schools this fall.
Cassellius said in recent weeks that she enthusiastically supports the new plan, which was the result of weeks of study by the nine-member working group.
“Often times when children come to us with less, they get less,” she said. “In this instance, they're getting first access."
Not everyone shares her enthusiasm. Although city officials cited the pandemic as one of the major reasons for the change, opponents said they were concerned it signaled an end to testing to enter the schools.
Sarah Zaphiris, a Boston Latin alum and parent of a rising sixth-grader, noted that SAT testing is still occurring. She started a petition asking the schools to return to testing using the new exam that has been vetted for bias.
“I worry that if you put something like this in place, it will be hard to take it away,” Zaphiris said of the new plan. “Inertia takes over.”
And that was exactly what retired BPS teacher Katharine Kilborn, the mother of two white Boston Latin Academy graduates, said she wants to see.
“I will support and demand that this not be a one-year anomaly but will lay the groundwork for a more equitable education throughout Boston,” she said.
First generation parent Sum Tan was one of dozens of Chinese parents who implored committee members to continue the test because its competitive standards offer many immigrant children in the city a path out of poverty and low paying service jobs.
They believe the new admissions system hurts the chances for poor children living in wealthy zip codes like Back Bay, Downtown or Seaport, where there are pockets of poverty.
“Admission by zip code is a form of segregation, not unity,” Tan said. “It will push us backward, not forward.”
School social worker Rebecca Witte testified that she supports the measure, even if it means entrance to an “exam” school may be more difficult for her sixth-grade son who lives in Roslindale.
“I’m OK with this. It’s about what’s right for all, not just about my son,” she said.
The committee also agreed to turn the working group that created the new procedure into a task force so that its work examining school policies could continue and its meetings would be made public.