Dozens of Boston students were wrongly informed of their eligibility for the city’s prestigious exam schools last week due to an error by Boston Public Schools in calculating their grade point averages — the latest blunder by a school district already under scrutiny for shoddy record-keeping and inaccurate statistics.
Some students were incorrectly told they were eligible to apply to the exam schools, while others were mistakenly told they didn’t meet the criteria. While the mistakes are not expected to affect the admissions timeline for the three schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science — the misfires have added another layer of stress to families already struggling to navigate a complicated new admissions process.
One set of students, buoyed by the news that they could apply, have seen their hopes dashed, while others — told they were not eligible — may have already decided on backup options, such as private schools.
Superintendent Mary Skipper said Wednesday that she was “incredibly apologetic” for the mistake.
“We never want to cause stress to families,” Skipper told the Globe. “We take pride in trying to do everything we do well, and this was an example where there was an actual human error and the fail-safe didn’t catch it. . . . We’ll do everything we can to work with the families that are impacted.”
The district’s inability to measure everything from bus reliability to graduation rates is a central focus of a state-mandated improvement plan the school system is operating under. In February, a third-party review conducted as part of that plan confirmed those problems and identified more, such as not reporting when staff physically restrain students or failing to review education plans for students with disabilities on time.
And if the GPA error proves harder to correct than officials believe, and it does impact the admission timeline for exam schools, it could have reverberations throughout the system. No one can get their seventh-grade school assignments until exam school invites are sent out — heightening the time pressure on families that may be trying to decide between staying with the district or seeking educational opportunities elsewhere.
In a letter being sent to rising seventh-grade families this week that was obtained by the Globe, BPS said it discovered an error in how it calculated GPAs to determine exam school eligibility for rising seventh-graders. Students must have a GPA of B or higher to be considered for admission. New eligibility notices, based on correct GPAs, will be sent by the end of the week, according to the letter.
School officials directly contacted affected families Wednesday, Skipper told the School Committee Wednesday night.
“My only reaction personally was heartsick,” Chairwoman Jeri Robinson said. “The idea that we had said, ‘You’re eligible,’ and even if there were only one child or two children, to go back and say that’s changed, it’s not fair.”
Families were informed last week whether their children were eligible to apply but the information was inaccurate for 67 students because the district “used the wrong methodology” calculating GPAs, Skipper said Wednesday night. The district does not believe eligibility for rising ninth- and 10th-graders was affected by the error, according to a separate letter to those families. Students who are Boston residents can apply for entrance into all three exam schools in seventh and ninth grade. The O’Bryant also admits a small number of students for 10th grade.
Forty-one students were wrongly told they were not eligible to apply, while 26 were wrongly told they were.
Skipper said that of the 26 students who are not eligible, four are from charter schools and the other 22 are reflective of the BPS student body in terms of race, gender, and current school.
Skipper told the Globe she was unsure how the mistake was found but believes a family may have raised the alarm.
“I think it may have been that a parent contacted us with a question about GPA and that caused us to look at it more deeply,” she said.
If so, it was not the first time this school year the district had to take a closer look at exam school admissions based on community feedback. According to the BPS website, in October the district had to temporarily take down its map of socioeconomic tiers that are tied to the admission process “to conduct additional validation” after residents pointed out the district was identifying certain affluent areas as having large high needs populations. The new policy, in place since last year, divides applicants into eight tiers based on the socio-economic characteristics of where they live.
Any changes to GPAs based on the corrected calculations will be minor, Skipper said, and most students’ GPAs will be unchanged.
The district has also had problems in prior admissions cycles: In 2019 and 2020, dozens of students wrongfully were 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.
Last year, the district said it had tapped Ernst & Young to prevent incorrect admission decisions such as those.
But the contract included 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.”
This year the district hired the Greater Boston-based firm Borderland Partners instead of Ernst & Young. The companies were charged with verifying the accuracy of the data for the year each oversaw the process.
School Committee member Michael O’Neill called the mistake “a self-inflicted wound.”
After the district discovered the error and confirmed that Borderland Partners had failed to catch it, the district brought in the city’s auditing department to verify the new calculations, Skipper said at the School Committee meeting.
“We’re very confident in the new calculations,” she said. “Internally, we will now set up multiple layers of internal checks, as well as have a different external auditor.”
While families are only now learning if they are eligible, anyone seeking to attend an exam school has already applied, in effect: BPS students submitted their ranked school choices in January, while Boston residents attending other schools did so in the fall. The admissions test was administered in June and December 2022. Under the timeline for the admissions process, students are then told in April whether their GPA was high enough to be eligible. And a few weeks later, they learn whether they received an invitation from a school.
The miscalculation comes during the first full year of the district’s complicated new exam school admissions policy, which was put in place in July 2021. Eligible students receive a composite score, with 70 percent based on their GPA and 30 percent based on a test, the MAP Growth assessment. Last year, there was no test component.
On top of the composite score, applicants get 10 bonus points if they attend a school where at least 40 percent of the students are designated as economically disadvantaged, meaning their families qualify for government assistance. Students can alternatively get an additional 15 points if they live in public housing, are homeless, or are in foster care.
Once students have their scores, they are admitted based on their rank order within eight geographic tiers, which are grouped by factors such as percentage of persons below poverty, percentage of households not occupied by the owner, percentage of families headed by a single parent, percentage of households where English is not the primary language spoken, and educational attainment levels.
Do you have a BPS student who was impacted by a GPA miscalculation? If so, we want to hear from you.