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Four things to know about the Boston exam school admissions debate

Sixth grader Jason Zhang held a sign that read, "No Lottery Schools" as he stood outside of Boston Latin School in October 2020.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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The Boston School Committee task force assigned to determine the future of the admissions process to the city’s exam schools — Boston Latin Academy, Boston Latin School, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — will present some of their initial ideas to the School Committee Wednesday.

Here are four things you should know about the debate surrounding the admissions process.

1. Why was the exam paused?

The Boston School Committee in October voted to drop the admissions test for one year out of concern that it was not safe to administer the in-person exams during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The temporary plan required applicants to have at least a B average for the two terms prior to the pandemic shutting down schools in March 2020 or MCAS scores of “met expectations” or “exceeded expectations” in 2019 to be considered. The plan awarded 20 percent of seats based exclusively on grades, and the remaining 80 percent of seats were awarded based on grades and ZIP codes, giving priority to students who live in areas with the lowest family household income.

2. Why do some parents and Civil Rights advocates want to change the admission criteria permanently and get rid of the exam?

Proponents of permanently ending the admissions test say it is unfair to students of color and those who live in poorer neighborhoods, citing research that standardized testing shows racial bias. They also note that many disadvantaged students do not have access to private tutors and admission consultants that many middle-class families rely on.

By eliminating the test and adding socio-economic considerations as part of the temporary ZIP code plan, the changes have boosted diversity in the schools, according to data released by BPS. The portion of acceptances sent to Black students rose to 24 percent this year from 18 percent last year, and those going to Latino students increased to 28 percent this year from 24 percent last year.


3. What are the arguments against the changes?

Parents who support the entrance exam say it is essential to maintaining rigorous academic standards, and that dropping the exam would lead to students who are not qualified to be admitted into the schools.

A group of parents filed a lawsuit in February, arguing that the allocation of most seats by ZIP codes under the temporary plan favors “Latino and African American students to the detriment of Asian and White students.” A federal judge upheld the admissions policy in April.

4. What are some of the new changes the task force is considering?

The task force still has not made decisions yet on many aspects of its recommendations, including whether or not to keep an entrance test.

In one big potential move, the task force is considering doing away with a practice of assigning qualified applicants to their exam school of choice based on the rank order of test scores & GPAs and instead would use a lottery, which would randomly distribute spots among academically qualified students.

Supporters of the lottery system say it would provide disadvantaged students an equal shot at their first choices and safeguard them against families who use private tutors and test-prep consultants. Some scenarios would blend the two approaches, possibly allocating the first 20 percent of seats based on rank-order, while the others would be allocated using a lottery system.


A final recommendation could include phasing in some aspects of the changes in light of the pandemic, as some members are concerned grades from this year might not accurately reflect students’ abilities following months of remote learning. In that regard, the task force will likely recommend using only grades from the first part of the next school year, at least for sixth-graders who are seeking admission to the seventh grade.

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