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Boston’s new exam school policy should dramatically boost diversity — once fully implemented — but questions remain about next fall

Boston Latin School.Pat Greenhouse

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A new admission policy should dramatically increase the diversity of students admitted into Boston’s exam schools, while the odds of white applicants getting in would plummet, according to a much anticipated school department analysis.

The biggest change would likely occur among applicants from low-income households. They would get 55 percent of the admission offers, once the policy is fully in place in two years, up from 35 percent in spring 2020 under a policy that had been used for decades.

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“This policy meets the charge of the School Committee and our strategic plan,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told the School Committee at a presentation of the report Wednesday night. “This is going to increase equitable opportunity while maintaining academic rigor.”

The new policy, approved by the School Committee this summer, divides students into eight applicant groups based on the socioeconomic characteristics of where they live, so that students with similar means compete against each other rather than against everyone citywide.

A goal of the changes is to address gaps in home and school resources among students, where more affluent families can afford private test-prep classes and enjoy other academic advantages that better position students to secure seats at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science.

In a nod to that gap, the new policy would award 15 bonus points to applicants who live in public housing developments or are homeless or in foster care, and 10 bonus points to any applicants from high-poverty schools, regardless of their income. (Applicants who qualify for both can receive only the 15 points.)

The effort to craft a new policy, more than a year in the making, has been marked by racial tensions among parents, School Committee resignations over racially charged comments, and ongoing court challenges to a temporary policy that tried out some novel approaches to level the admission playing field.

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The new policy replaces a temporary plan that largely allocated seats for this fall by grades and ZIP codes, resulting in more diversity as well. Some Asian and white parents unsuccessfully contested the plan in federal district court and have filed an appeal in the First Circuit.

Previously, the district had assigned seats based on a composite score of grades and performance on an entrance test. At one time, an applicant’s racial background was considered in admission decisions, but legal challenges by white parents in the 1990s forced school officials to abandon that practice.

Consequently, the most sought after exam school, Latin School, became less diverse, while the O’Bryant most closely resembles the school district’s demographics. Latin Academy falls in the middle.

The new policy should boost admissions of students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, according to the analysis.

For instance, the portion of admission offers that likely would go to Latino applicants would rise to 32 percent, from 21 percent in spring 2020, while the share going to white applicants, who tend to be more affluent, would shrink to 23 percent, compared to 40 percent in spring 2020.

Black applicants also will likely fare better under the new policy, although not to the degree they did under the temporary plan based on ZIP codes. Some 21 percent of admission offers will likely go to Black applicants, down 2 percentage points from the ZIP code plan, but much higher than under the old policy, 13 percent.

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Offers to Asian applicants remain roughly the same, capturing about 20 percent of the seats.

Lisa Green, a Latin School parent and member of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, said on Thursday she was pleased the data show the new policy will result in more diversity.

“The new policy looks like it will achieve more equitable access while ensuring that students from every neighborhood, socioeconomic tier, and school in Boston will have the opportunity to compete for a seat among students with similar life circumstances,” she said.

Others, however, said the policy doesn’t address the concerns of many parents.

The new policy is being phased in over two years. When fully implemented, beginning with students seeking seats for fall 2023, grades and results from an entrance exam will still be used, as under the old policy, although test scores will carry less weight in the final scoring.

But just for the next school year, beginning fall 2022, the traditional entrance exam will not be given due to concerns over learning disruptions caused by the pandemic. Applicants will instead be judged just on their grades.

The data are the first to examine the policy once it is fully implemented in fall 2023. Such an analysis was absent when Cassellius presented the committee with last-minute revisions she made to the policy prior to the July vote, raising questions if it had been properly vetted.

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But the new analysis is still incomplete. Despite requests from the School Committee, Cassellius did not provide data on how students seeking seats for fall 2022 would fare under the new policy when only grades, not test scores, are part of the admission equation.

Many parents from more affluent neighborhoods have argued their children have no chance of getting in, as they won’t qualify for bonus points because they don’t attend high-poverty schools. Many of them have cited a detailed data analysis by one parent that has been widely circulated.

Fewer than a dozen city-run schools don’t meet the threshold of being classified as a high-poverty school, in which 40 percent or more of students are economically disadvantaged, according to a Globe review of data. They include schools that have had tremendous success in sending students to the exam schools in the past: the Eliot K-8 in the North End and the Lyndon and Kilmer K-8 schools in West Roxbury.

And the school department data indicate that applicants from West Roxbury will take a hit under the new policy, with about 5 percent of offers going to them, down from 13 percent in spring 2020. By contrast, East Boston would get 10 percent of offers, up from less than 6 percent.

Cassellius and her team emphasized that no school has ever been guaranteed seats at the exam schools and added it was difficult to run an analysis for the next admission cycle because of the pandemic-related disruptions.

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