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In an effort to level the playing field for low-income students in the exam school admission process, the Boston Public Schools last summer came up with what many advocates considered to be a novel approach: Applicants from high-poverty schools will receive 10 bonus points.
But the new approach came with a hitch that many parents say could undermine the perk: All applicants who attended high-poverty schools, regardless of whether they come from middle-class or wealthy households, will automatically receive those points.
Now, a number of parents whose children would miss out on the points are crying foul. They contend the new approach gives a leg up to more affluent students from qualifying schools because BPS has set a low bar for defining a high-poverty school, creating unnecessary inequities among middle-class applicants and even among some low-income students.
Under the admission policy, applicants from schools where at least 40 percent of students are economically disadvantaged would receive the 10 bonus points. By that definition, qualified applicants from all but a half-dozen or so BPS schools would qualify for the bonus points, regardless of household income.
The new policy goes into effect for applicants seeking admission for this coming fall, with BPS expecting to make decisions in April. Applicants will need to have at least a B average and for next fall only, admission will be based just on grades, which will be converted into a 100-point composite score. The bonus points go on top of that, bumping a 100 to 110. (An entrance test will resume for the following admission cycle and the composite score calculations will be readjusted.)
In a few cases, the difference between which schools qualify for bonus points and those that don’t are razor thin. The Mendell Elementary School in Roxbury just made the cutoff with 40 percent of students classified as economically disadvantaged, while the Boston Teachers Union Pilot School in Jamaica Plain missed it by about 2 percentage points.
“It’s a penalty. It’s not a bonus,” said Victoria Woodward Moore, mother of a sixth-grader at the Manning Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, where less than a third of students are economically disadvantaged. “We are a really small school and we are collateral damage. BPS doesn’t care about the consequences to the actual children at the school.”
Last week, Manning parents filed a complaint with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, charging the new admission policy discriminates against students with disabilities. (The Manning has a specialized program for students with social-emotional impairments.)
They also have been taking aim at Mayor Michelle Wu, who voiced hesitancy about the points on the campaign trail, for not remedying the problem. They question whether that’s because her children would get the points because they attend a BPS school where 57 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, although her children, in prekindergarten and first grade, are years from exam-school age.
“I voted for Mayor Wu — I have nothing against her — but I really don’t understand why Mayor Wu‘s kids are getting the points but we are not,” said Daniel Noemi, who has two children at the Manning.
And a parent at the Eliot K-8 School in the North End launched an online petition that also urges Wu to intervene and has garnered nearly 1,000 signatures so far.
While the School Committee approved the new admission policy last summer, months before Wu took office, she expressed apprehension in October during a WBUR Radio Boston interview about awarding applicants bonus points based on schoolwide populations of students.
“I want to see the individual socioeconomic situations of our students accounted for and believe that that should be part of equity within the system,” Wu said. “But I’m going to . . . get some answers on questions I’ve posed around this particular piece, with entire school communities being treated this way or that way.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Wu indicated she would not disrupt the admission process this year.
“After many years of hard work, BPS deserves the opportunity to implement its admission reforms,” Wu said. “I understand the anxiety some families feel about the point system and commit to reviewing it closely while we work to ensure equity and build more high quality high schools across the city.”
The uproar is the latest over changes to the admission process for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science. Last year, a group of white and Asian families unsuccessfully sued BPS in federal district court over a one-year temporary admission plan based on student ZIP codes. An appeal is pending.
Many are closely watching to see if the latest set of changes will attract another legal challenge.
For now, BPS is holding firm on the bonus points, a perk that didn’t exist under the old policy. BPS also will award 15 points to applicants who are homeless, in care of the state Department of Children and Families, or living in public housing developments. (Applicants who qualify for both sets of bonus points will only receive the 15 points.)
“Our recently adopted Exam Schools Admissions policy was designed to more equitably distribute access to the three exam schools across our entire city,” said Sharra Gaston, a school spokesperson, in a statement.
A school department analysis last fall estimated that 54.5 percent of admission offers would go to students who live in low-income households, compared to 35 percent in 2020 under the old policy.
Aside from awarding bonus points, the new admission process also groups applicants into eight tiers based on the socioeconomic conditions of their neighborhoods, so that ideally students of similar means will compete against each other. Seats will be filled within each tier by rank order.
Previously, exam school seats were filled by a citywide ranking of grades and test scores, resulting in applicants from seven BPS schools receiving 47 percent of the admission offers, according to school department data. Most of those seven schools fall under the high-poverty threshold.
Giving out bonus points in the admission process has been debated for years and often centered on whether all BPS applicants should be rewarded for not having instead attended a parochial, private, or charter school. Many critics argued that would be unfair because families resort to those options because BPS doesn’t offer enough quality schools.
In an effort to reach a compromise, a School Committee task force last June proposed the two sets of bonus points as part of their sweeping recommendations to change the exam school admission process. They believed the points could help compensate for the disparities in resources that exists among students in their homes and at school as well as address concerns about grade inflation and racial and socioeconomic bias in standardized testing.
But the task force set a somewhat higher threshold for a high-poverty school — those with 50 percent or more of students classified as economically disadvantaged.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius lowered the threshold to 40 percent in her final recommendations to align with federal standards for distributing aid to high-poverty schools. BPS, however, operates under a waiver that allows the district to give that federal funding to all BPS schools in recognition they all teach students in poverty, according to the state education department.
Rosann Tung, an independent researcher who served on the task force, said there is room for improvement with the bonus points, but notes it’s far better than the old system in which nearly a dozen BPS schools that predominantly enroll low-income, Black, or Latino students got few or no admissions into the exam schools.
“It’s not a perfect solution,” Tung said. “A more perfect solution for me if we are still going to have exam schools and a test and a rank order is to weight kids who themselves are low income, but we would need individual income data.”