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A task force recommended that Boston make sweeping changes to the admission criteria for the city’s exam schools to give priority to disadvantaged students, but in a bow to political pressure included a last-minute change to appease middle-class families.
The changes finalized at a public meeting Tuesday night would place much more emphasis on a student’s grades than test results, and would separate applicants into eight groups based on their socioeconomic status, so that a low-income child would not be competing with a wealthier student for the same seat.
The complicated approach took a late, unexpected turn when the task force also carved out an exception for students who had the highest composite scores based on grades and test scores citywide. Twenty percent of the seats at the city’s three exam schools would be reserved for those high-ranking students — regardless of socioeconomic status — a move that could benefit families with the means to pay for private tutoring and admission consultants.
The highly charged effort to increase diversity at the elite high schools has drawn pushback from a group of white and Asian parents. And task force members indicated that just hours before the vote, they were under pressure to moderate the proposal, resulting in the 11th-hour inclusion of the set-aside for top-performing students.
Neither of the cochairs of the task force would identify the source of the pressure, with one, Tanisha Sullivan, who is head of the Boston branch of the NAACP, saying only that “it is political” and suggesting it was coming in response to concerns raised by middle class families. The other cochair, Michael Contompasis, a former Boston schools superintendent, also suggested there were veiled threats if the task force didn’t amend its recommendations, noting the ramifications “won’t be pleasant.”
Task force members have been concerned that if their recommendations are not accepted, the school system will simply stick with the current admission policies.
Several members expressed frustration over the last-minute pressure and resented that their authority to fully make the recommendations on their own after five months of meetings had been usurped.
“I’m confused as where this pretty much anonymous backlash came in the past 24 hours,” said Simon Chernow, a member who just graduated from Boston Latin Academy. “Like all of a sudden there are these ghosts that are speaking that have this power. Like I hope no one on this task force is getting threatened.”
Another task force member, attorney Matt Cregor, was more pointed.
“To the extent that there are local elected officials who are weighing in here, doing it in quiet, shame on them . . . for playing Boston politics in a way that doesn’t break the open meeting law,” he said, noting it “disgusts me.”
Members did not take a formal vote on the recommendations. Instead, the cochairs simply sought their views, and said they would note objections to the late change reserving 20 percent of the seats for top-ranked students.
Going into Tuesday’s meeting, members appeared to be gravitating toward an option that would give disadvantaged students a priority in the allocation of seats and decrease the emphasis of test scores in admission decisions.
Under that option, grades would comprise 70 percent of the formula of determining which applicants qualify for seats at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science. Test scores would account for 30 percent. That’s a significant departure from current practice, in which grades and test scores have equal weight.
Applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds would also receive a potential boost on two fronts. Applicants from schools with high-poverty rate would receive a 10-point increase in their composite score used for admissions. All applicants then would be grouped in tiers based on a variety of socioeconomic indicators. Seats would then likely be allocated over the course of 10rounds, beginning with applicants in the most disadvantaged tiers.
But now 20 percent of all seats are being set aside outside those tiers for the highest ranking students.
The recommendations are expected to be presented to the School Committee Wednesday night, which could then vote on final changes in two weeks. The changes would go into effect this fall for applicants seeking to enroll in the exam schools for the 2022-23 school year.
However, some elements of the plan would be phased in. For instance, the task force is calling for a suspension of the admission test again this fall, given the disruption to learning the pandemic has created for many students, particularly those who spent most of the year learning online while many students from private school were able to attend classes full time in person all year.
For the upcoming selection process, the sole criteria would be grades, and just for those classes that students are taking in the fall. For sixth-graders applying for the seventh grade, that includes English, math, science, and social studies.
Over the last five months, the 13-member task force has navigated a number of thorny issues in crafting their recommendations, including whether to retain an entrance exam or allocate seats by randomized lotteries, ZIP codes, or census tracts, and how to safeguard against grade inflation.
The goal of the changes is to increase the socioeconomic, geographic, and racial backgrounds of applicants who gain admission, while preserving the high academic standards of the three exam schools.
Their work is the outgrowth of a temporary plan the School Committee approved last October. That system dropped the admission test for one year due to the pandemic. Instead, admission decisions were based on grades, and seats were allocated largely by students’ ZIP codes, a move that boosted the diversity of accepted applicants, but ultimately reduced the portion of Asian and white applicants getting in. That plan also included a 20 percent set aside for the highest ranking applicants citywide.
The Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp., a group of Asian and white parents, tried unsuccessfully to block the temporary plan in federal district court and the First Circuit of Appeals. The group returned to district court last week in an effort to convince the judge to reopen the case and permanently ban future use of ZIP code allocations in exam-school admissions.
But many other parents, education advocates, and civil rights activists are pushing for changes to the admission criteria to increase access for a broader array of students. The Boston Coalition for Education Equity, for instance, says the temporary admission plan this year demonstrates it can be and has urged city and school leaders to build upon those efforts for permanent changes.
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.