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At Boston’s public exam schools, it’s equity vs. privilege

A recently filed lawsuit isn’t about equity. It’s about preserving the disadvantageous status quo.

Counter-protesters stood across the street from an October rally outside of Boston Latin School that called for Boston schools to keep the admissions exam in place for entry into exam schools.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Pimentel family has been eagerly checking the mail for a special letter. The hope was that an invitation would arrive, one that announced the family’s eighth-grader had been accepted to Boston Latin Academy, one of the city’s three coveted and highly selective exam schools.

But now the Pimentel family, along with many other families across the city, will have to wait a little longer for word from the Boston Public Schools. The acceptance letters have been delayed because of a last-minute lawsuit challenging temporary admissions standards to the exam schools.

It’s a case that strikes at the heart of a precious bastion of privilege in Boston. The exam schools are an oasis of excellence in a system that otherwise is a desert. To the question of who gets in and who doesn’t, there’s another question: Who makes the rules and whom do the rules serve?


Until COVID-19 hit, admission into Boston Latin Academy, the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, and Boston Latin School — the district’s crown jewel and the city’s “most sacred cow” — was based half on students’ performance on the Independent School Entrance Exam and half on their grades. But the results have been lopsided, yielding predominately white attendance, particularly at Boston Latin. Nearly 72 percent of the 2,500 white students enrolled in Boston’s public high schools attend one of the three exam schools. Those who can afford to prepare for the exam — those with resources — have the advantage.

While the district faced pressure from the Boston branch of the NAACP and other advocates to reconfigure or scrap the test, the coronavirus pandemic pushed the School Committee to eliminate the exam altogether for this fall’s admission. A new system, based on grades, test scores, and ZIP codes, which would ensure that more students from underrepresented areas would gain entry, was put in place.


Then, on Feb. 26, came 14 parents who filed a lawsuit challenging the temporary admissions rule, arguing it discriminates against white and Asian American students in Boston. These families are taking issue with the part of the new plan based on ZIP codes.

They argue in the suit that the new admissions plan “violates equal protection.” They claim the district could have just compared all applicants’ grades “in a city-wide competition.” Rather, they say, the school committee approved “an admissions program that deliberately Balkanizes the city. Their new approach — the ZIP Code Quota Plan — allocates the great majority of seats based on the ZIP codes in which the applicants reside, rather than on merit.”

What these 14 families ignore is that “merit” does not always equal fairness or objectivity. They aren’t fighting for equity, just to preserve the disadvantageous status quo. It took a pandemic to usher in an overdue era for Boston’s exam schools, one that would finally begin to correct an indefensible reality: Black and Hispanic students have been “substantially less likely to be invited to exam schools” regardless of their academic performance. That’s according to Harvard researchers in 2018 who analyzed the schools’ lack of diversity. They found that “MCAS scores in 5th-grade identify a substantial number of high-skilled Black and Hispanic students who currently do not enroll in exam schools.”


Historian Ibram X. Kendi, who testified before the School Committee in October when the change in policy was being considered, put it best. “Instead of advantaged kids having the edge in admission decisions, disadvantaged kids should have the edge in admissions decisions,” Kendi said in his testimony.

And now it’s on to federal court. Backlash to the suit was swift, including from a group of civil rights organizations, social justice advocates, and the Pimentel family, who were allowed by federal court to be part of the litigation.

“As long as Asian Americans are pitted against Black and brown communities, we won’t be able to increase access to education,” said Thang Diep, youth coordinator at VietAid in Boston, in a virtual press conference about the case. (Diep is no stranger to the admissions debate: As a Harvard student he helped the university fight a high-profile federal lawsuit that alleges Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants.) ”Asian Americans stand in solidarity with the Black and Latinx community in wanting to make sure that there are equitable outcomes and equitable access to public education in the city of Boston,” said Bethany Li of the Greater Boston Legal Services’ Asian outreach unit.

Given the lawsuit, the district has agreed to delay acceptance letters to students until mid-April. For Maireny Pimentel, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and a single mother who works as an Uber driver, the outcome may change her oldest child’s future. They currently live in a housing project in South Boston, and her son is a top student: He was admitted into advanced academics in fourth grade. And yet when he applied to Boston Latin Academy in the sixth grade, he didn’t make it. He was notified in December that he could apply again under the new admissions system. He is waiting and hoping.


“My son told me that he knew something like this was going to happen,” Pimentel said in an interview in Spanish about the delay. “He told me he thought he was going to be rejected because he knows people like him are not given many opportunities.”

This is a fight about educational equity — moving toward a system that evens the playing field, now so severely tilted against the minority-majority in the public schools.

Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.