A proposal to temporarily suspend the admission test for Boston’s three exam schools and instead rely almost exclusively on student grades is shining new light on concerns about grade inflation and inconsistent academic standards among the city’s public and private schools.
The concerns have been mounting in recent years, with critics saying the system possibly hinders the chances of Black and Latino students securing seats at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science.
In one of the more eyebrow-raising incidents, school officials determined three years ago that 69 percent of exam-school applicants from Holy Name Parish School in West Roxbury had A-plus averages. Civil rights activists seized on the data in arguing that potential grade inflation benefiting students at predominantly white private schools was stealing seats away from low-income Black and Latino students.
And just two months ago, BPS officials acknowledged they incorrectly calculated the grade point averages for dozens of applicants over the last two years — most of them students of color. As a result, they were denied admission to the exam schools or did not get their top choices.
Anne Yount, a school admission and test prep consultant who has aided affluent and low-income students for years in gaining admission to the exam schools, said many parents have lost faith in BPS’s ability to ensure student grades are being evaluated with consistency and truly reflect what students know.
“People have been gaming the system with grades for years,” Yount said.
If the School Committee approves the proposal Wednesday night, it would represent a seismic shift in how the school system assigns exam-school seats. Since the mid-1960s, students have had to pass an entrance exam. GPAs were later added to the mix.
School officials contend the changes are only for one year to address the unique challenges that have arisen during the pandemic.
With nearly all BPS students learning from home this fall, school officials said it is not feasible to bring students into schools to take the exam. They also worry that interruptions in learning sparked by the abrupt closure of school buildings last spring and a myriad of other pandemic issues, from COVID-19 infections and economic devastation, could lead to an inaccurate picture of what students can truly do.
But the proposal also includes a measure that civil rights advocates have been lobbying the district for years to adopt: giving students from disadvantaged households an edge in admission decisions. Specifically, the proposal sets aside a certain number of seats for students from each zip code, based on the portion of school-age children who reside there. Under the plan, the school district would dole out seats to students starting with the zip codes that have the lowest median household incomes.
Some 80 percent of seats would be awarded based on zip codes, while 20 percent would go to students — regardless where they live in the city — based exclusively on the rank order of grades. Students would need at least a B average to apply to the exam schools or another measure that shows they meet grade-level standards, such as MCAS scores. (Only a third of this year’s sixth-graders who will be applying to exam schools met or exceeded expectations the last time they took the MCAS in 2019.)
School Committee chair Michael Loconto has thrown his support behind the proposal, which is expected to generate hours of debate Wednesday night.
“I think it’s a reasonable approach to maintaining a merit-based admission process for our selective schools while recognizing the need to maintain equity of access [to the exam schools] in this current pandemic environment,” Loconto said.
The School Committee is deciding on the controversial proposal less than two weeks after its unveiling. Many parents have said they felt blindsided, and both opponents and proponents rallied Sunday at Latin School.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, a Latin School graduate and mayoral candidate who supports the proposal, said it was unfortunate that city and school officials did not include more parents, students, and families in such a monumental decision.
“We know this conversation about who has access to excellent BPS schools, who deserves access, and the process to figure that out is entangled with a long history of racial inequities in our school system that the city and district has refused to confront in a meaningful way,” Campbell said in a statement.
If approved, the proposal could lead to a somewhat more diverse group of students gaining admission, according to school officials.
Of all seats being awarded next year, Black applicants could fill 22 percent of them, up from 14 percent in this year’s admission class; Latino applicants could secure 24 percent of the seats, up from 21 percent; white applicants would get 32 percent of them, down from 39 percent; and Asian applicants would fill 16 percent of them, down from 21 percent.
Michael Contompasis, who led Boston Latin School for decades and was a member of the working group that drafted the proposal, said members struggled over the decision to base admission almost entirely on GPAs, even as members conceded that administering a test was not feasible this fall.
“GPA is supposed to be an objective tool, but unfortunately it has become somewhat subjective because BPS and non-BPS schools use different ways to calculate GPAs,” he said.
BPS bears a portion of the blame. Many of its schools use different grading scales for the fifth and sixth grades. Many schools grade fifth-grade work on a numeric scale, while they award letter grades to sixth-graders. Private schools also have their own unique grading systems, although most tend to use letter grades.
Consequently in an effort to accurately compare academic records, Boston school officials convert all grades to a 12-point scale when assessing exam-school applications, an effort that resulted in BPS wrongfully denying exam-school seats to dozens of students recently.
Lawyers for Civil Rights has raised concerns about grade inflation and calibration for years, as it has pressed the school system to overhaul exam-school admission requirements.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the group’s executive director, said the proposal under consideration helps to alleviate that by giving low-income students a priority for admission and using grades earned prior to the pandemic.
“We are in enthusiastic support of the proposed changes,” he said “We believe administering a high-stakes test in the midst of a concurrent and overlapping health, economic, and racial pandemic makes absolutely no sense. . . . The proposed changes will create a more even playing field.”
Lisa Green, of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity and co-chair of Latin School’s parent council, said that holding entrance exams this fall would only exacerbate inequities in the system.
“Who would be less likely to show up for the test administration: a child of working immigrant parents in East Boston, or a child whose parents have been paying for test prep for the last two years,” asked Green.