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GPA issue just latest in series of exam school admissions errors parents have noticed this year

Parents noticed a series of problem in admissions to Boston's exam schools this year, including Boston Latin Academy, above.John Tlumacki

The GPA mix-up that sent some parents the wrong message about their children’s eligibility for Boston’s exam schools earlier this month was just the latest in a series of blunders made by the district during this year’s admissions process, including incorrect test scores sent to parents and a faulty map that characterized some of the city’s ritziest blocks as lower-income areas.

The problems, which in at least two cases were identified by parents whose children applied for admission to the coveted schools, have now been fixed. But they risked further delaying an already slower process and complicated decision-making for families trying to figure out whether to attend private schools or stick with Boston Public Schools.

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The mapping error could have diluted the number of students accepted from low-income areas and increased the number of students from wealthy neighborhoods — the opposite result school administrators had aimed for with the new admissions system. The goal was to help diversify the city’s prestigious schools, which have long been overrepresented by white and wealthier students.

The map, as originally drawn, would have had students in low-income areas vying for spots against students living in places like Louisburg Square, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, rather than competing against peers in similar circumstances.

Another error involved sending some families the wrong math score on the June 2022 MAP growth assessment, leading parents of high-scoring students to believe their children performed much worse than they actually did.

The various mistakes raise questions about whether the district, already under state scrutiny for data problems, is capable of administering the complex new system governing admissions to Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science.

The process proved so challenging that after one year relying on a local firm for validation, with unhappy results, school officials have gone back to the global accounting firm Ernst & Young, which oversaw the process last year. School leaders are scrambling to make sure they can issue decisions in early May — two months later than invitations were sent prior to the new system.

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This year’s gaffes follow the district wrongly admitting and denying admission to dozens of students in 2019 and 2020. They have raised concern for some parents about the accuracy of final decisions expected in May.

“Arguably the easiest part of the policy is the calculation of the GPA,” the parent who found the map problem said. “They’ve literally messed up every step up until now.”

In the case of the GPA error, the district appears to have averaged grades across two years incorrectly, leading to one year being weighted more heavily. This affected eligibility decisions — students must have a B average — and would have also affected composite scores, which determine admissions.

Three parents who found admissions errors and were interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous to avoid any retaliation in exam school admissions against their children.

The test score error was corrected quickly. One private school parent who spoke to the Globe said he immediately knew something was wrong when he received his daughter’s math test score — she’s a strong math student and had supposedly scored in the 54th percentile. The mistake was corrected within hours, before he contacted the district.

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But not everyone realized the mistake or saw the correction immediately. Jed Hresko, whose sixth-grade daughter scored in the 83rd percentile in math on the admissions exam, initially was e-mailed by the district that she scored only a 52, hampering her chances of getting in.

“We were a little deflated,” he said. “It started to influence our optimism about whether she’s going to get in.” The family didn’t see the corrected e-mail until recently

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After the GPA problem was revealed, School Committee Vice-Chair Michael O’Neill noted that when the committee approved the new admissions process in July 2021, board members requested an external auditor.

“We were deeply concerned about problems arising in that process,” O’Neill said. “To hear that, in fact, that secondary source of verification has not worked is deeply disappointing.”

No known errors came to light under Ernst & Young, which audited the process the first year. This year, the district hired a local consultant firm, Borderland Partners, to oversee admissions.

BPS declined to answer repeated questions from the Globe about Borderland’s contract and why Ernst & Young was replaced. The district has yet to respond to public records requests from the Globe for bidding information, contracts between the district and the small Sharon-based company, and communications between district officials about the position.

Superintendent Mary Skipper announced Wednesday that the district has rehired Ernst & Young to audit its exam school admissions decisions and had “great confidence” in the firm’s work, given its successful oversight of the exam school work and other work in the district.

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“Parents and guardians deserve to receive accurate feedback on their child’s academic performance and we continue to engage with affected families to ensure that we appropriately respond to their concerns,” district spokesman Max Baker said in a statement.

The first error, in reporting admissions test results to some non-BPS parents last June, involved reporting the percentage of questions students got correct as their percentile rank. Students who scored in the top 10 percent were told they scored about average, an obvious mistake to some parents that nonetheless was not corrected until hours after notifications were sent.

The second error, in October, was similarly obvious to watchful parents. Many wealthy areas were assigned to much higher-needs tiers than the year before. Like Louisburg Square, most of Allston-Brighton and Charlestown moved to higher-poverty tiers; so did much of South Boston and the North End.

The tiers matter greatly in admissions because there are many more applicants in lower-needs areas, but each tier has roughly the same numbers of eligible students and available seats. By scrambling the tiers, the district was improving the odds of admission for students previously in the low-needs tiers and increasing competition for students in high-needs areas.

For one parent of an Eliot School sixth grader, the new map seemed to improve her son’s chance at admission. But she believed the district would notice eventually because the changes seemed to run contrary to what the new policy was designed to do.

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“If the ‘neediest’ tiers in the city were the wealthiest, they would know it was wrong,” she said. “They would not get the results they wanted.”

Rather than wait for the district to figure out the mistake later in the process, the parent contacted the data office. Her theory was that the district was calculating the tiers using the percentages of residents living in poverty, speaking a language other than English, and single-parent households as markers of privilege, rather than need — it was adding, not subtracting, them from the socioeconomic score.

She never got confirmation of the exact error, but later that month, the map was temporarily disabled, according to the district website. A new map went online in November, with Louisburg Square back in the lowest-need tier.

In December, an official told the parent that the district “did find a coding issue in the initial estimation and subsequent tier map.”

The most recent error, with GPA calculations, was promptly discovered, this time by a parent who had calculated her son’s GPA in advance after hearing about prior errors. She contacted the district immediately; two weeks later, Skipper was apologizing.

Even without the errors, the new, later timeline means some families considering private schools may have to commit financially by their typical May 1 deadlines to pay tuition before knowing what BPS placement their children got, and affects every rising seventh-grade student in the district, because exam school admissions come before other seventh-grade placements.

“I’ll just be relieved when May finally comes and we can make decisions and go from there,” the parent who found the GPA problem said. “You hope it doesn’t happen again.”

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.

Correction: Due to reporting errors, an earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Eliot School and misstated which areas of the city had more applicants for the exam schools. The Globe regrets the errors.


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.