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Pulling back the curtain on Boston’s new exam school admission process

John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, one of Boston's exam schools.John Tlumacki

The new admission process for Boston’s exam schools is off to a rocky start, marked by last-minute recruitment of students and a potential two-month delay in admission decisions.

Boston Public Schools announced this month it has tapped a major accounting firm, Ernst & Young, to validate calculations of grade point averages used for admission to Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science.

School officials are asking families to be patient as they await admission decisions, which might come as late as May. But tensions are rising, particularly among families relying on private schools as fallback options who are facing deadlines for security deposits.


“Clearly exam school assignment is on the minds of many and we’d like to spend a few minutes pulling back the curtain if you will to share what’s involved in the process,” said Denise Snyder, acting chief of BPS’ family and community advancement, during a School Committee meeting Wednesday. “We understand at the surface the process seems like it should be simple and that it should not take so long.”

Here’s a glimpse at what’s going on:

Why are admission decisions coming out so late this year?

The issue: For years, Boston parents have anxiously checked their inboxes or mailboxes in March for exam-school acceptance letters. Last year, those notifications got pushed to April while a lawsuit by a group of Asian and white parents moved through the federal court system. This year, the letters may not go out until late April or May.

However, this month BPS informed families about whether their children met the GPA eligibility criteria — a B or better — to be considered for admission.

BPS response: “There is no delay. While BPS acknowledges that its current notification timeline is different from the notification timeline in previous years under the old exam school policy, the anticipated time frame of late April/early May for notification of exam school invitations has been consistently communicated to families during our winter exam school information sessions. The District is still on track to notify families of exam school invitations within this time frame.”


Is BPS running a lottery process for the exam schools?

The issue: Several parents became alarmed this month when they received what should have been good news. BPS informed them their children’s GPA was high enough to be eligible for admission, but letters stated their children would be entered into a “lottery process” to determine whether they would actually get a seat.

A lottery is technically not part of the new exam school admission system and would represent a seismic shift for BPS. For decades, admission has been based on a rank order of composite scores, which this year consist of only GPAs. (Next year test scores will be added back in.) When students have identical composite scores, BPS randomly assigns numbers to break ties, but has insisted previously that’s not a lottery.

BPS response: “The exam school admission process has always included an algorithm for tie-breaking purposes when applicants have identical composite scores. This algorithm, which is often referred to as a ‘lottery,’ assigns a random number to applicants with identical composite scores, and that number serves as a tie-breaker when students are competing for the same seat.”

Why has BPS brought in an outside auditor?

The issue: BPS raised eyebrows among families when they mentioned in recent newsletters it was using outside auditors as part of the admission process, but provided scant details about the nature of their work and why they are involved. “Our external auditors are now reviewing the qualification process and supporting work to finalize composite scores, and then qualifying applicants will be entered in the assignment round,” the newsletter stated.


As it turns out, this is the second year BPS has tapped an external auditor, Ernst & Young, for the exam school admission process at a total cost of $250,000, according to last year’s contract and this year’s amendment to it. The contract also includes an important note: “EY is not responsible or part of the decision making process to approve or decline a student’s application to the schools. It is solely the responsibility of the Boston Public Schools.”

BPS’ response: They’re using an auditor to prevent incorrect admission decisions. This is in response to errors BPS made in 2020 and 2019, under the old admission system. Dozens of students wrongfully got denied admission to an exam school or didn’t get their top choice, while others incorrectly got admitted, because of errors that occurred when BPS converted a variety of grading systems from different schools into a common GPA measure for exam school decisions.

BPS believes auditing oversight will help as it rolls out changes to the admission process, which began last year under a temporary plan that allocated seats by grades and student ZIP codes.

BPS declined to say how they will respond to any discrepancies uncovered by Ernst & Young.


Does BPS have a shortage of exam school applicants this year?

The issue: For the first time, BPS is dividing applicants across eight socio-economic tiers so ideally applicants of similar means are competing against each other in rank order within their tier. Given the applicant pool tends to attract a disproportionate share of middle-class students, there are concerns about whether BPS will have enough applicants for each tier.

In an unusual move this month, BPS has been calling parents of eligible students who didn’t apply and encouraging them to submit applications, well past the deadline. Students who attend BPS schools were supposed to apply by Feb. 4 and non-BPS students by Dec. 17.

BPS response: The changes in the admission policy over the last two years prompted the extra outreach after the deadline to families across all tiers who have children who are eligible but didn’t apply. Officials wouldn’t say whether they received enough applicants, adding they would release the data later.

“Given that this is a new policy and we have been told that many BPS families do not know about exam schools, we are taking the extra step of reaching out to families to ensure they are considering all of their options,” BPS said. “The stated goal of the updated admissions policy was to see enrollment in exam schools to more closely align with overall BPS enrollment so enrolling additional BPS students is a part of that strategy.”

Another perspective: Lawyers for Civil Rights supports the extra outreach, although parents are divided on it: “Information is power. ... There are students who have known since kindergarten they will apply to exam schools but other highly qualified students, including many students of color and low income students, may not have heard about exam schools most of their lives.”


The Globe’s Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him @globevaznis.