After a marathon meeting, the Boston School Committee early Thursday morning unanimously voted 7-0 to approve a controversial proposal to drop admissions tests for the city’s prestigious exam schools for one year because of the pandemic, instead determining eligibility and acceptance by using grades, MCAS scores, and ZIP codes.
The vote came shortly before 1:45 a.m. and capped more than 8 hours of public comment and discussion by the committee. The meeting started at 5 p.m. Wednesday and was held remotely over Zoom.
School Committee Chairman Michael Loconto said the proposal is a “radical departure” from Boston’s decades-old testing policies, and acknowledged the intense public interest in the plan.
“The enormity of this decision is apparent from the reaction of the community,” Loconto said.
Over more than 5 hours of public comment, over 100 people spoke for or against the plan — or implored the committee to slow the process and delay a vote.
Chengjing Hu, a parent who signed a petition to keep the exam, said her son was upset to learn the exam might be canceled. “He was very confused and kept asking why," she said.
The proposal has sparked debate among students and parents but has wide support among School Department officials, including Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and Loconto.
A working group appointed by Cassellius recommended this month suspending the test for the 2021-2022 school year for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science.
Several Latin School alumni voiced support for suspending the test.
Amy Kiley said when she was a student there in the 1980s, “it was far more diverse than it is now. And this was as important to my education as any class I took.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh urged the committee to skip testing this year, saying it “does not make educational sense to launch a new exam in the middle of a pandemic.”
“It would not be fair or just to ask a child to come to compete on an exam whose life has been turned upside down due to the parents losing their home, losing their jobs, or close family members losing their life,” Walsh said by video during the livestreamed meeting.
Cassellius said that skipping the test this year is “the right thing to do for kids.”
“We are in this pandemic, and we have an obligation to look at all of our policies,” Cassellius said, adding that the unusual situation creates opportunities to increase equity for the city’s students.
The plan would require most public school students either to 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 seats in the three schools based exclusively on grades. The remaining 80 percent of seats would be awarded based on grades and ZIP codes, with the largest number going to the neighborhood with the greatest proportion of the city’s school-age children.
Parents, students, and alumni are sharply divided between those who feel the exam is essential to ensure rigorous academic standards and those who say the test is unfair to students of color and those who live in poorer neighborhoods. The two sides squared off during a rally Sunday outside Boston Latin School.
On Wednesday, competing petitions in support of and against the exam on Change.org had similar numbers of signatures: 5,084 people said they wanted to keep the test, but 5,337 called on the School Committee to ditch it.
Several city councilors said the working group didn’t do enough to seek families' input on the proposal, especially households that don’t speak English. Most voiced support for the plan while calling for greater action to ensure equity in the exam schools.
“There are a lot of Latino parents who weren’t able to send their kids to these exam schools because they don’t even know they exist,” said Councilor Julia Mejia, who supported the measure.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, supported the plan but called for further changes to improve equity.
Dozens of parents, students, and teachers said they support the proposal. Also voicing approval was J. Keith Motley, chancellor emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Boston, who spoke for a coalition of civil rights groups that included the Boston branch of the NAACP, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, and the Anti-Defamation League of Massachusetts.
But Bruce McKinnon, who said he was Latin School student in the mid-1970s, worried that dropping the exam and considering ZIP code for some applicants would mean less-qualified students would be accepted.
“If you have experience with the Boston Latin School, most of us were getting up at 4 and 5 a.m. to do homework,” he said. “Most of us were involved in an academic grind. This is unbelievable.”
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.
Tanisha M. Sullivan, cochairwoman of the exam school admissions working group and president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, told the committee their decision would be historic.
“This will undoubtedly be a defining moment in our city,” Sullivan said. “Even though we’re talking about a one-year proposal, what we do tonight and what we do over the next 12 to 18 months with respect to this proposal will be defining for us as a city."
Kathy McCabe of the Globe Staff contributed to this story.