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Boston’s interim exam-school admission plan deserves a shot

Reform to the elite schools’ admissions system has been long overdue.

Boston Latin Academy.
Boston Latin Academy.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The temporary pause of the controversial test that helps determine entry into Boston’s three top-rated public exam schools was celebrated in the fall as a potential sign of good things to come. Because the pandemic made it challenging to administer the test, here was an opportunity to experiment with an alternative admissions formula that could finally make the student body at the exam schools, particularly Boston Latin School, more representative of Boston’s population as a whole.

But the one-year plan was put on hold after a lawsuit was filed by a group of white and Asian American families at the eleventh hour, just as the district was getting ready to send out admission invitations to selected students. The families argue the plan — which uses a combination of grades, MCAS scores, and ZIP codes to determine entry — is racially discriminatory and thus unconstitutional. Because race is correlated to ZIP code, the proposal to reserve a set number of seats for each ZIP code is the new plan’s key feature — and the main target of opponents’ ire.


At a federal court hearing last week, Judge William Young made no promises of a quick ruling. And even if Young decides the case relatively soon, an appeal is almost guaranteed. This delay is yet another unfortunate educational disruption in a pandemic year full of losses. Families deserve to know where they stand sooner rather than later. And it would be a shame for Boston to miss the chance to try out an admissions system at its prestigious exam schools that should promote racial, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity.

Even while a court decides its fate, the new policy is also exposing clear contrasts among the Boston mayoral candidates.

Of the six declared candidates running, three support suspending the test and using the alternative ZIP code plan to admit students for the incoming class in the fall: Acting Mayor Kim Janey and City Councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell (who is a Boston Latin graduate). City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, meanwhile, is against the temporary policy.


Both state Representative Jon Santiago and John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development, declined to say whether they supported the plan challenged in court. Instead, Barros and Santiago offered generic statements about the need to increase diversity in the exam schools. That’s unfortunate: considering the power mayors have to appoint school committee members, voters deserve clear answers from candidates, and not platitudinous mush.

Under the old rules, according to data filed in court about the case, a student from West Roxbury was approximately five times more likely than a student from East Boston to gain admission into the exam schools. Only 4.8 percent of the city’s school-age children live in West Roxbury, where the median income for those families with school-age children is $138,000. In contrast, 9 percent of school-age kids live in East Boston and the median income for those families is $40,000.

Regardless of how Young rules, it’s clear a change must come to diversify the exam schools. Last year, there were deep racial disparities in the share of students who received an invitation to attend: More than two-thirds of white student applications and more than half of Asian student applications were accepted; meanwhile, only 1 in 5 Black applicants and nearly 1 in 4 Latino applicants received an invite.


The families who filed the lawsuit do not want the admissions test back. It would be too late to administer it, anyway. Instead, the plaintiffs would like the district to get rid of the ZIP code quota, as they call it. But a ruling in their favor wouldn‘t prevent bias in exam school admissions — it would merely perpetuate the one that has existed for too long.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.