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Yes, Boston can have excellence and equity at its exam schools

Test scores, grades, ZIP codes, lotteries — it’s time to make some decisions.

Boston Latin SchoolJohn Tlumacki

For decades, Boston’s prestigious exam schools did a reasonably good job of balancing two aims: excellence and access. But when the courts struck down a series of racial set-asides in the late-1990s, access took a back seat. These days, just 1 in 5 students at Boston Latin School is Black or Latino, compared with about three-quarters district-wide. And while the other two exam schools, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, are more diverse, they are still not representative of the district as a whole.

The pandemic and the racial reckoning of recent months have focused new attention on access. And rightly so. Boston’s poorest neighborhoods are filled with talented young people who haven’t had the advantages of their wealthier peers. And finding and unlocking that talent has to rank among the district’s top priorities.


An interim admissions policy, adopted at the height of the pandemic, dropped the entrance exam, relied heavily on grades, and distributed seats, in part, by ZIP code — ensuring a more diverse class of incoming students at the exam schools next year. And for the past four months, a task force appointed by the School Committee has been discussing a permanent admissions policy that would solidify this new commitment to equity.

But the panel has struggled to reach a consensus on what, exactly, the policy should look like. And with a deadline of next week to make a recommendation to the School Committee, the task force needs to break its deadlock and make some decisions.

One of the ideas the group is considering: holding onto a 20/80 split that was part of the interim admissions policy. That means the first 20 percent of the exam school seats would be distributed via a traditional citywide competition that ranks students by grades, test scores, or other measures. The remaining 80 percent would be allocated through a system that weighs both academic achievement and the obstacles students have faced.


This 20/80 split, similar to a system used in Chicago, is a good idea and should be included in the task force’s recommendations. The 20 percent set-aside gives the district’s highest-achieving students something to aim for while leaving plenty of room for greater access.

The question, then, is how to provide that access.

Start with the admissions criteria. Some have called for permanently dropping the entrance exam — or making it just one of several possible routes to eligibility — and relying heavily on grades, instead.

Overemphasizing grades would be a mistake. Parochial schools have long been suspected of grade inflation, which puts Boston Public Schools students at a disadvantage. And even within the public school system, grades can be arbitrary — subject to the whims of teachers with stricter or looser marking standards.

That doesn’t mean dropping grades from the process; on the contrary, they are an important indicator of student performance and should play a substantial role in the admissions process. But exams should be a part of the equation, too — as long as they are aligned with the curriculum taught in the public schools (unlike the old test).

Once the criteria are set, the final piece is identifying a mechanism for distributing the 80 percent of seats not subject to traditional citywide competition.

One approach the task force is considering, again drawing inspiration from Chicago, would group the city’s census tracts into four or eight socio-economic tiers, each with roughly the same number of students. Some of the poorest census tracts in Dorchester and Roxbury might be grouped into one tier, while some of the wealthiest in West Roxbury and Beacon Hill might be grouped into another, with tiers in between. Then, exam school seats would be equally distributed to the top-performing students in each tier.


This approach would mark an improvement on Boston’s interim exam school admissions policy, which used ZIP codes. ZIP codes cover relatively large geographies with all sorts of demographic variation. Census tracts are smaller and more homogenous, allowing the district to better target talented students from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Any system that uses geography invites a certain amount of gaming. Families could move to poorer census tracts to give their kids a better shot at getting into an exam school. But that seems unlikely to be a major factor. And if it promotes some residential integration at the margins, that could be a positive. The tiers could also be reassessed periodically, so that if the demographics of a census tract change it could be moved to a different tier. The advantage of the tiered approach is that it promotes diversity while giving students a reasonably clear sense of what they have to achieve to get into an exam school.

Another idea the panel is considering — a lottery for students who meet an academic threshold of, say, a B average — has some advantages of its own. It would promote diversity. And it would remove the stigma for students who perform well but fail to get into an exam school; they would know it was just a bad bounce of the lottery ball that kept them out.


Ultimately, though, that element of chance makes the approach less compelling. It would make admission feel beyond the control of the individual student — and render the policy politically tenuous as a result.

Of course, any shift from the old system to one that places greater emphasis on equity is going to spark opposition; the interim admissions policy drew an unsuccessful lawsuit. But it is the job of the task force, and ultimately the School Committee, to devise a policy that upholds the rigor of the exam schools while expanding access. And that is entirely possible.

Indeed, crafting a well-thought-out admissions policy is just one step the district could take in this direction. Once the policy is in place, the district should consider adding a fourth or even a fifth exam school to the mix — even as it works to shore up its other high schools. Ideally, all Boston’s schools would be capable of elevating students’ achievement to the level of elite exam school graduates.

There are plenty of bright students in Boston. They should all have a chance to maximize their potential.

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