A larger percentage of students from low-income households were admitted to Boston’s three exam schools for the fall under a new policy that for the first time created a bonus system to aid economically disadvantaged applicants, according to a school department analysis released Wednesday night.
For those seeking admission next fall to the seventh grade — the most popular entry point for the exam schools — 45 percent of admission offers went to low-income applicants, compared to 35 percent for fall 2020, the last time the old admission policy was used.
The outcome for low-income students was slightly better than last year, when a temporary admission plan based on student ZIP codes was in place.
The demographics of those receiving admission offers to the highly competitive Boston Latin School also changed significantly. The portion going to Black applicants increased to 22 percent compared to 6 percent two years ago, while those sent to Latino applicants rose to 21 percent compared to 12 percent two years ago.
By contrast, the portion of seventh-grade invitations for Latin School going to white applicants dropped by more than half, to 23 percent for next fall compared to 50 percent for fall 2020, while invitations to Asian applicants increased 2 percentage points to 29 percent.
“The driving focus of our work at BPS over the past three years has been to increase access to a wide variety of opportunities for all of our students, especially those who have encountered barriers for far too long,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement. “It is incredibly gratifying to know that the policy is working as intended and as a result more Boston students have a more equitable chance to get an excellent education.”
Yet overall, applications for seventh grade admission were down dramatically. The three exam schools received 1,283 for next fall, down from 1,666 last year under the ZIP code plan, and from 2,833 two years ago under the old admission policy.
It’s not clear why the applications went down. Boston school officials were planning to present the exam school admission data during a School Committee meeting Wednesday night, but the board lacked a quorum and all business and reports were postponed.
Speculation has been brewing for months that BPS had a shortage of applications for next fall and was reaching out after the application deadline to eligible students, encouraging them to apply. In March, in response to Globe questions, BPS wouldn’t say whether it had enough applications.
In many parts of the city, nearly all eligible applicants and in some instances every eligible applicant for the seventh grade received admission offers. Applicants needed a B or higher to qualify. A number of parents have complained that information BPS provided about the application process on its website for next year was confusing to navigate.
Moreover, the district has been experiencing an enrollment decline, including in the sixth grade, which is when most students apply to exam schools.
Overall, 67 percent of the 1,283 seventh-grade applicants received an invitation to their first-choice school, 8 percent to their second choice school, and 3 percent to their third-choice school, while 22 percent did not receive an invitation.
In grade 9, applications for exam school seats were more turbulent. Applications were up this year, with 984 received in total, compared to last year, but it was down notably from two years ago. Overall, 28 percent of ninth-grade applicants received an invitation to their first-choice school, 8 percent to their second-choice school, 7 percent to their third-choice school, and 57 percent did not receive an invitation.
Under the old policy, admission was based on grades and standardized test scores. For the last two years, however, only grades were used in the admission process due to learning disruptions created by the pandemic. The test will be used again for the admission process for fall 2023 and applicants can take the test next month.
The introduction of the bonus points has been widely embraced by civil rights advocates and many parents who contend it helps level the playing field for applicants who don’t have the financial means for test prep and who tend not to perform as well on standardized tests.
But many other families argue the bonus points are unfair and potentially redundant and have been pushing to have them eliminated. Of particular concern is that a large number of middle-class families can obtain bonuses that are aimed at benefiting low-income applicants.
Under the policy, any applicant from a school where 40 percent or more of students live in households that receive government assistance can obtain 10 bonus points in the admission process, regardless if they come from a higher-income household. The vast majority of BPS schools qualify for the bonus points. Those that don’t include the Kilmer and Lyndon K-8 schools in West Roxbury and the Eliot K-8 School in the North End.
Applicants who are homeless, living in public housing developments, or are in the care of the state Department of Children and Families also qualify for 15 bonus points. However, applicants can only tap one set of bonus points in the admission process.
The policy also aims to reshape the demographics of those securing admission in one other significant way. For the first time, applicants are divided into eight separate admission pools, or tiers, based upon the socioeconomic factors of where they live so that ideally only applicants of similar means are competing against each other.
Taken together, the changes had significant impacts on who got in and who didn’t, and the bonus points played a significant role. For seventh-grade applicants, 81 percent of admission offers went to those who secured bonus points, giving them an edge. By comparison, applicants with bonus points comprised a smaller share of the applicant pool, 69 percent.
The most dramatic shifts in admission outcomes in neighborhoods that historically snatched up the greatest share of seats. In tier 8, which had the highest number of applicants and includes West Roxbury, a longtime powerhouse in the exam-school admission process, just 34 percent of applicants qualified for bonus points. Consequently, fewer than half the applicants received admission offers.
In tiers 2 and 3, where nearly all seventh-grade applicants secured bonus points, every applicant got into the exam schools, while nearly all applicants in tiers 1, 4, 5, and 6, where high rates of students qualified for bonus points, received admission offers.
In a statement, Jeri Robinson, chair of the School Committee, said she was encouraged by the results.
“The new admissions policy provides a transformational opportunity for many students to attend our exam schools who otherwise may not have had the chance,” Robinson said. “This new policy opens the door for many of our students while still ensuring the high levels of rigor for which the exam schools are known.”
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.