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THE GREAT DIVIDE

In seismic shift, a lottery might govern admission to Boston’s exam schools

The exterior of Boston Latin School.
The exterior of Boston Latin School.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

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For generations, many Boston parents have hailed the exam-school admission process as a meritocracy that is transparent and safeguards against back-door political maneuvering. Students with the highest grades and test scores are rewarded — in rank order — by getting first dibs on their preferred exam school.

But now, in what would be a seismic shift, a School Committee task force is giving serious consideration to scrapping the rank-order assignments and replacing them with a lottery, which would randomly distribute spots among academically qualified students.

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It is one of several ideas the task force discussed Monday night and plan to float by the School Committee on Wednesday, even as it continues wrangling over whether to maintain the entrance exams.

The goal of potentially switching to a lottery is to help disadvantaged students — whether due to economics or learning disability — get an equal shot at their first choices and safeguard them against families who game the process with private tutors and test-prep consultants.

“It wouldn’t be pitting students against students and who’s smarter and who’s not based on . . . one test on one day in your life, or a grade during a pandemic,” said Katherine Grassa, principal of the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain and a task force member.

The exam school task force is racing to craft final recommendations, a process taking longer than anticipated.

Originally, the group was expected to present its recommendations to the School Committee last week, but coming to consensus for the 13-member board has proved difficult. Instead, the task force will merely be giving the School Committee an update on Wednesday about its current thinking about potential changes.

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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.

The changes led to a more diverse pool of applicants receiving acceptance to Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science, but they also attracted an unsuccessful federal lawsuit by a coalition of Asian and white families.

But the task force remains torn about whether to continue requiring an entrance exam and, if so, how much of a factor should it be in the admission process. The task force is also looking at the possibility of adding an essay as part of the entrance requirements. The panel plans to take up the contentious testing question again on Thursday.

Aside from using a lottery, the task force is also still considering the use of rank- ordering students based on their academic achievement. Some scenarios would blend the two approaches together. For instance, the first 20 percent of seats might be allocated strictly on the rank-order of academic achievement, while the remaining seats might be doled out under a system that prioritizes disadvantaged students by dividing them into groups and using a rank-order or a lottery.

Lotteries are a highly polarizing issues in the Boston Public Schools, which relies on the practice in assigning students to all of its other schools, creating a high stakes of chance for many families starting when their children are just 4-year-olds as they vie for a limited number of good performing schools as measured by MCAS.

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Some task force members are bracing for pushback. Just last fall, some parents opposed to the temporary admission plan accused school officials of trying to sneak in a lottery into the exam school admission process because in the event that students had identical GPAs, ties would be broken with a randomly assigned number.

“If we have other mechanisms that seem much more thought out and less than, you know, an Atlantic City chance, it might be easier for the community to bear,” said Pastor Samuel Acevedo, a task force member.

Zena Lum, a Boston Latin Academy parent and task force member, recalled her own misgivings with the practice as a parent, noting that “there’s a lack of transparency with a lottery.”

Rachel Skerritt, head of Boston Latin School and a task force member, shared mixed feelings about a lottery.

“It is a very dramatic departure from what families have been expecting and I don’t know if it’s necessary to arrive at the diversity we seek,” she said.

But several other members support the idea of a lottery.

“The lottery . . . takes away the shame and the embarrassment that students feel, it takes away the feeling that some students are better than others, and it’s not good for the winners or losers to have that,” said Rosann Tung, independent researcher and task force member. “It mitigates all the gaming that comes with privilege and mitigates stereotypes. And it takes pressure off teachers and administrators around grade inflation.”

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