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THE GREAT DIVIDE

A lottery for exam schools in Boston? Mayoral hopefuls react to the idea

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

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Candidates running for Boston mayor had mixed reactions to the idea of nixing the traditional testing process for the city’s trio of highly competitive exam schools, with some contenders criticizing the proposal, while others maintained they looked forward to recommendations from a task force while stopping short of full-throated support for the idea.

A School Committee task force is considering scrapping assignments for the city’s exam schools and replacing them with a lottery, which would randomly distribute spots among academically qualified students to Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science.

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Such a move would mark a seismic shift. For generations, students with the highest grades and test scores have been rewarded by getting first dibs on their preferred exam school in a admissions process that some have hailed as a meritocracy that is transparent and safeguards against back-door political maneuvering.

A lottery would flip that process on its head, randomly distributing spots among academically qualified students. The goal would be 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. The task force is slated to give the School Committee an update at a Wednesday night meeting.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey didn’t take a stance, but said through a spokeswoman that equity across the city’s school district is important and she “appreciates the task force’s efforts to ensure equitable access to the exam schools.”

Meanwhile, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, a former public school teacher from Dorchester, was more straightforward in her assessment: She supports a test for the city’s exam schools.

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“And while we certainly need to address diversity in our exam schools, our current school assignment process is concrete evidence that a lottery based system to access a high quality school does a disservice to our kids and doesn’t improve diversity or the growing opportunity and achievement gap for students of color,” said Essaibi George.

State Rep. Jon Santiago felt the task force should have stronger recommendations to ensure historically marginalized students have a real chance at getting in.

“Exam schools are based on meritocracy — not chance. It is deeply problematic if Black and Latino students have to depend on a lottery ball for a chance at success. This is simply another distraction from the fact that BPS is failing too many students, especially those of color, who deserve a real opportunity — not luck — to attend an exam school.”

According to a school district spokesman, the task force has considered many options over the course of 19 public meetings, and is expected to give a presentation to School Committee members regarding the proposal at Wednesday’s meeting. The task force then plans to hold additional engagement sessions before the schools superintendent makes a recommendation to the School Committee.

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.

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The changes led to a more diverse pool of applicants receiving acceptance to the three schools, but they also attracted an unsuccessful federal lawsuit by a coalition of Asian and white families.

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell said Tuesday she still is reviewing the task force’s idea, adding she supports exploring ways to make exam school admissions more equitable, but stopped short of specifically endorsing an exam school lottery. She said there has to be a robust engagement process of “every family in every neighborhood,” as part of the ongoing exam school discussion.

“I continue to hear concerns about lack of engagement,” she said.

John Barros, the former economic development chief of the city, said he wants to hear more from the task force about how a potential lottery would be set up. Boston authorities should create an admissions process that includes “teacher recommendations, class rankings, along with GPA and an unbiased academic assessment.”

“Our goal must be for every student, from every neighborhood to have access to a high quality, rigorous curriculum that meets their academic and developmental needs,” said Barros in a statement. “Schools which provide more rigorous curricula need to take a more representative cross-section of the city and, more importantly, of the school district’s population.”

While not specifically addressing whether she supported the idea of an exam school lottery, Councilor Michelle Wu said in a Tuesday statement she looked forward to “receiving the recommendations of the task force to move us towards greater equity throughout our district,” adding, “We must also ground conversations about Boston’s exam schools in the context of delivering high-quality, rigorous, and well-resourced pathways at each one of our schools in the district.”

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Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.