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Boston’s exam schools may drop entrance test for one year

Admission would instead be based on grades, MCAS scores, and zip code

Boston Latin School
Boston Latin SchoolPat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Students wishing to attend Boston’s coveted exam schools next year would not have to take an admissions test under a new proposal that some say doesn’t go far enough, while others say it would create additional uncertainty for students grappling with enormous change.

A Boston Public Schools task force recommended Thursday that the district suspend the entrance exam for one year and decide eligibility and acceptance using grades, MCAS scores, and ZIP codes.

“It [is] not fair nor feasible to administer an exam,” said Tanisha Sullivan, cochair of the exam school admissions working group and president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. Sullivan was referring to the logistics of testing while families are social distancing, and the disparate impact the pandemic has had on low-income, Black, and Latino households.

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Although School Department officials and Sullivan were adamant the change would be temporary, suspending the test and using ZIP codes to ensure geographic and socioeconomic diversity is one of the boldest proposals to change the admissions process that the School Committee has contemplated in decades.

The recommendation, backed by Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, was presented at Thursday’s School Committee meeting and will be up for a vote later this month.

For most public school students, eligibility to apply would be based on MCAS scores or grades.

Under the proposed plan, traditional public and charter school students must either have scores of “met expectations” or “exceeded expectations” on the 2019 MCAS to be considered, or a B average or better for the two terms before the pandemic forced schools to close. Private school students, who do not take the MCAS, would have to prove they are performing “at grade level” or show a B average or better.

The plan would award 20 percent of exam school seats based exclusively on grades. The remaining 80 percent of seats would be awarded based on grades and ZIP code, with the largest number going to the neighborhood with the greatest proportion of the city’s school-age children.

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With more than 12 percent of the city’s children, the 02124 ZIP code in lower Dorchester would get the most seats under the proposal. That area includes the Codman Square and Ashmont neighborhoods. ZIP codes in Back Bay, Downtown, Allston, and the Seaport have the smallest percentages of the city’s schoolchildren.

Students living in low-income ZIP codes would get the first choice in each round of selection, based on their grade point averages. Three ZIP codes in Roxbury have the lowest median incomes in the city, while the Seaport has the highest, according to district data.

The working group projects that these changes would increase the percentage of Black, Latino, and multiracial students invited to all three exam schools from 40 percent to 51 percent.

Parents of some sixth-graders planning to apply to Boston Latin School this year are unsettled by the proposal.

The proposed plan “injects a lot more uncertainty,” said Sarah Zaphiris, who attended Boston Latin and has a son in ninth grade at the school. “It’s making it more challenging for parents who are trying to figure this out.”

Zaphiris lives in West Roxbury, where nearly 5 percent of Boston’s schoolchildren live, and worries about her daughter’s chances of gaining admission this year if the proposal is approved.

Before seeing the plan, Zaphiris started a Change.org petition last month urging the city to “keep the test.”

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School Committee Chairman Michael Loconto called the proposal “an elegant solution” that “creates equity of access across the city while preserving traditional notions of merit.”

“It’s the next best step in creating equity” in the district, Cassellius said.

Before hearing the presentation, Boston junior Olga Gjika urged the School Committee on Thursday to do away with the entrance exam permanently. As a newcomer to Boston, she didn’t know about the exam and couldn’t apply, she said.

Until last fall, Boston used the Independent School Entrance Exam and the student’s grade point average to decide admission. The district ended its contract with the makers of the ISEE in the spring after a public disagreement. Boston planned to use a new test this fall administered by NWEA.

Civil rights groups argued that the pandemic and remote schooling made it impossible to maintain the usual admissions process, and doing so would exacerbate existing disparities at the schools.

According to district data, Black students make up just 8 percent of students at Boston Latin School, while Latino students are 13 percent of the school’s enrollment. Overall, Black and Latino students represent more than 70 percent of the school district’s student population of more than 53,000.

Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science have much larger percentages of Black and Latino students.

To address the challenges of this year’s admissions process, the superintendent appointed a working group chaired by Sullivan and Michael Contompasis, a former Latin School headmaster and district superintendent who has argued in the past to preserve the admissions exam.

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“We had to think pretty differently about our admissions process this year . . . so everyone would have a shot at our three exam schools,” Cassellius said.


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.