Seven months after the Boston School Committee approved sweeping changes to the admissions policy for the city’s prestigious exam schools, the debate over who should get in — and how — just won’t die.
And it shouldn’t.
The school committee is a fallible body taking on a complex and emotionally charged issue. And it should be willing to make adjustments where warranted, as long as it maintains its commitment to the idea at the heart of last summer’s reforms: making the city’s most coveted schools more accessible to low-income students, who have been underrepresented for too long.
The schools are desirable, and for good reason: While the rest of Boston’s high schools often struggle academically, the high-performing exam schools are the best the city has to offer, offering students who make it through the admissions process a solid, academically rigorous path to college and career.
In revising that admissions process, the panel could start with the controversy over a provision awarding 10 “bonus points” to applicants from high-poverty schools — that is, schools with at least 40 percent of students from economically disadvantaged households.
The problem is that the bonus goes to every student who attends such a school, even if their families are middle class or well-off.
Naturally, it’s parents at the handful of schools that don’t qualify for the boost that are making a stink. But however self-interested they may be, they have a point. There is a basic fairness issue in play. And the 10 bonus points are no small thing. Admissions are determined by converting grades — and, starting next year, grades and performance on an entrance exam — into a 100-point composite score. With the bonus points, an 80 turns into a 90, a 90 into a 100, and a 100 into a 110.
But dropping the bonus points, without any substitute, would be a mistake.
The problem here isn’t the intent — the school committee was right to give low-income kids facing substantial barriers to entry a boost — but rather the execution. The bonus-point system is simply too blunt an instrument.
The best approach to aiding low-income students would be using individual-level data to identify which kids come from families that are, say, enrolled in the state’s Medicaid or food stamps programs. But bureaucratic issues make it difficult for the district to access that kind of information on students from parochial schools or other private schools applying to get into Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, or the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.
If those issues are unresolvable, the district could turn to a system like the one in place in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools: combining self-reported information on a family’s income and educational attainment with information on the socioeconomic status of the student’s neighborhood.
Another option would be to lean more heavily on the neighborhood elements already built into Boston’s admissions policy. Starting this year, the district is dividing applicants’ census tracts into eight socioeconomic tiers — grouping neighborhoods according to poverty levels and other factors — and allotting the same number of seats to each. The idea is to have students compete against students from similar backgrounds — providing a boost to low-income kids with academic potential who might not win a direct competition with kids from more privileged backgrounds.
And if those are the students the new admissions policy aims to help, then the district could drop the balky bonus points system and just provide more slots to students from the lowest socioeconomic tiers.
The tiers, of course, are an imperfect measure of students’ socioeconomic status; there are some middle-class kids living in the city’s poorest areas. But the neighborhood approach would surely do a better job of targeting low-income kids than the school-based system.
Just look at the Mendell Elementary School, on the Jamaica Plain-Roxbury border, which barely qualifies as a high-poverty school. With only 40 percent of students from economically disadvantaged families, 6 in 10 students are better off — and still qualify for the bonus points under the current system.
Now, in fairness, the bonus points system wasn’t designed to target low-income children, per se, but rather under-resourced schools that have historically sent few — if any — students to the exam schools. The 40-percent threshold seems a blunt measure of school resources, though. And the more compelling approach is targeting a child’s individual circumstances.
There is plenty of research at this point confirming what we’ve long known about how much a young person’s neighborhood and family situation can shape their destiny.
Let’s pay attention to it.
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