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THE GREAT DIVIDE

New Boston exam school admission requirements might include entrance test and ZIP code allocations

Sixth grader Talia Banda held a sign reading, "I'm smart - but I live in the wrong zip code" as she joined others calling for Boston schools to keep the admissions exam for the elite exam schools in a rally outside of Boston Latin School in October 2020.
Sixth grader Talia Banda held a sign reading, "I'm smart - but I live in the wrong zip code" as she joined others calling for Boston schools to keep the admissions exam for the elite exam schools in a rally outside of Boston Latin School in October 2020.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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With its cochairs at odds, a Boston School Committee task force failed to reach consensus Friday night on the fate of the entrance test for the city’s exam schools, after a heated debate erupted over what role test scores should have in admission decisions.

One cochair, former Boston superintendent Michael Contompasis, said he has great concerns about relying exclusively on GPAs because of uneven grading standards among different schools and grade inflation.

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“To me the use of an assessment is necessary because everything else we use up to this point is subjective in nature and from my perspective — and you may consider me a dinosaur — that’s the way it is,” said Contompasis, who is also a former headmaster of the city’s premier exam school, Boston Latin School.

But Tanisha Sullivan, the other cochair and president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, expressed strong apprehension about standardized testing, citing research that shows racial bias. If an exam is used, she said she would prefer that it measure the academic growth students achieve rather than using an absolute score, which Contompasis and some others say is essential to determining grade-level readiness.

“I am absolutely opposed to using an assessment that is looking at an absolute score, especially in the fall of ‘21,” she said. “There is absolutely no way that we can expect students who have had nearly a year of interrupted learning, multiple learning environments, difficulty accessing learning environments, to show up in the fall ‘21, sit for a high-stakes test, and say good luck.”

The task force had initially hoped to settle the thorny issue of entrance exams by Friday night, as it races to recommend a new admission system for Boston Latin, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science, by the end of this month.

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Another big issue is whether to continue allocating seats by student ZIP codes, which was part of a temporary admission plan this year that boosted the diversity of students who were accepted, or go with another mechanism, similar perhaps to what Chicago uses, that could yield similar results.

Chicago largely admits students into its highly selective schools by putting students into tiers based on the characteristics of the neighborhoods where they live. The tiers consider median household income, educational attainment, percent of owner-occupied households, percent of households where a language other than English is spoken, and percent of families headed by a single parent.

The task force’s work is an extension of an effort that began last year when the pandemic forced school officials to cancel the entrance exams and devise a temporary admission policy that allocated seats by grades and, in most cases, the ZIP codes of where students reside, giving areas with the lowest family income the highest priority.

Many parents and education advocates, who have been closely watching the proceedings, are expecting the task force will likely recommend utilizing test scores as part of the criteria, although they could carry less weight than in previous years, and preserving the use of ZIP codes or something similar. Such a move would represent a compromise, but would not quell the passionate debate over how to diversify the elite schools while still maintaining high standards for admission.

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Families preferring the status quo would welcome having the entrance exams back, but likely would oppose the ZIP code allocations. Conversely, families preferring more radical changes to admission requirements may like the ZIP code approach, which did result in a more diverse pool of acceptances, but likely will protest bringing back the test.

Those dynamics came up during public comment Friday night.

“We are responsible and dedicated parents, not the parents trying to game the system. We are devoted because we respect the rule of playing the fair game,” said Christina Jiang, a West Roxbury mother of a sixth-grader. “How can you call an admission policy ethical or race neutral when 70 percent of Chinatown students and 50 percent of Asians lost seats,” she said, referring to the drop in students from that neighborhood at the exam schools after the city switched to a ZIP code system.

Others had a different view point.

“Let us not lose sight of what is really at stake here, mainly the dismantling of a system of white supremacy and institutional racism that has eliminated or marginalized the educational aspirations and academic opportunities of generations of Black and brown, disabled, poor white, and/or non-English-speaking equally intelligent and brilliant young people,” said Sharon Hinton, a Hyde Park parent and president of Black Teachers Matter Incorporated. “To the parents who stated in Boston School Committee meetings that they feel that if the exam schools allow other ZIP codes into the admission process [it] will lower academic standards and rigor, shame on you.”

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The process of overhauling the exam school admission requirements has been rife with controversy. The temporary plan, approved by the School Committee last October, prompted a federal lawsuit by a group of white and Asian parents, who unsuccessfully tried to block its implementation because they were projected to lose seats.

And the meeting at which the plan was approved has led to the resignation of nearly half of the School Committee. Former chair Michael Loconto, who was caught on a hot mic mocking the names of some speakers with Asian-sounding names, quit hours after the vote. And Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, who replaced him as chair, and member Lorna Rivera resigned in recent days after leaked text messages from that night revealed they had been criticizing families from West Roxbury.

Rivera said she believes the text messages were leaked in order to derail the process to make permanent changes to the exam school admission criteria, and some families and elected officials, who prefer the old way of admitting students by test scores and grades, have called for that.

The portion of admission offers going to white applicants decreased to 26 percent this year from 33 percent last year, and for Asian applicants the acceptances dropped to 16 percent this year from 21 percent last year, according to data released by the school department. In West Roxbury the overall number of seventh-grade applicants receiving admission offers was cut nearly in half.

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By contrast, the portion of acceptances sent to Black applicants rose to 24 percent this year from 18 percent last year, and those going to Latino applicants increased to 28 percent this year from 24 percent last year.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey, however, has made clear that she wants a vote on a permanent change to the admission requirements to take place this summer.

The task force might end up recommending another temporary measure around grades in light of the pandemic. Some members are concerned that this year’s grades might not be an accurate reflection of what students know or can do because they spent most of their time learning remotely and wonder if they should instead rely exclusively on next fall’s grades.

To that end, the task force will likely recommend that for next year to rely only on grades from the first part of sixth grade in English, math, science, and social studies, and that the following year they would add back in grades for the fifth grade, although just for English and math.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.