The diversity of applicants accepted into Boston’s three exam schools for the coming academic year changed only slightly despite the return of the testing requirement after a two-year hiatus, according to school department data.
The results show how adding socioeconomic factors into the admission process over the last three years is proving to be a powerful force in reshaping the composition of Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science. The new criteria, after weighing grades and test scores, ranks applicants based on income levels and other factors of the neighborhoods where they live instead of doing it citywide, and awards bonus points if they meet certain conditions.
The increase in diversity at the exam schools over the last three years has been dramatic: The portion of invitations for seventh grade to Black students for next year is 22 percent, up from 13 percent for the 2020-21 school year, while those going to Latino applicants grew to 29 percent, from 21 percent.
Meanwhile, the portion of seventh-grade admission offers to white students fell to 24 percent for next fall, compared to 40 percent for the 2020-21 school year, while Asian students comprised 18 percent of offers, down from 21 percent. The proportions of students in each demographic were about the same for the coming year as last year.
The return of the entrance exam was closely monitored by many families, educators, and civil rights advocates, who were concerned the district would lose substantial ground in the diversity of students accepted to the three schools. But that turned out not to be the case.
“That certainly is good news and makes for a richer and more full learning environment for everyone,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights. And, he added, “the data indicates that a test is not necessary” for admission, given how little the demographics changed since last year when academic criteria was based solely on grades.
But some families say they’re concerned that high achieving students aren’t gaining admission because socioeconomic factors now carry so much weight. For example, one student who had a perfect composite score based on grades and test results, but did not qualify for bonus points, was not admitted to the exam schools for the coming year.
In scoring applicants, BPS awards 10 bonus points to applicants who attended high-poverty schools, regardless of their own family income, and 15 points to applicants who live in certain public housing, who are homeless, or who are in the care of the Department of Children and Families. The majority of the 1,355 applicants for seventh grade received bonus points.
Applicants are also divided into eight tiers based on the socioeconomic factors of their neighborhoods, such as percent of persons living in poverty and educational attainment levels. The two most affluent tiers have by far more applicants, increasing the competition within those tiers.
At a meeting of the School Committee Wednesday night, Jaime Dutton and her husband, Juan Gali, urged officials to drop the bonus points. Their daughter didn’t get an admission offer for a seventh-grade seat at the exam schools.
”It’s heartbreaking,” Dutton said. “This leaves us with a very uncertain path for our children’s education and our lifestyle choices that we have here in Boston, forcing us to contemplate whether we should stay in the city or move somewhere else where we can have access to high achieving schools like Boston Latin and the other exam schools.”
Moema Nicolau’s son was in the second most affluent tier, which had 262 applicants vying for 127 seats in the exam schools, even though they’re low-income. His scores on the entrance test in math put him in the top 2 percent nationwide and overall he had a composite score of 94.5 out of the 100 available for grades and test results.
But her son, who is Latino, didn’t receive bonus points because he doesn’t attend a high-poverty school and did not qualify under the other criteria. He was not admitted into any exam schools.
“It’s quite upsetting and frustrating,” said Nicolau in an interview Thursday. “I saw my son’s dream that he worked hard for go, boom, it’s over.”
Nicolau believes BPS’s system for awarding bonus points is flawed because too many middle-class students who attend high-poverty schools are receiving them while low-income applicants at other schools miss out.
“If the purpose of this was to do reparations they need to do a better job,” she said.
The outcome for applicants in the lowest socioeconomic tiers was far more different. All but one of the 125 applicants in the bottom tier for seventh grade were accepted and all 111 applicants in the third-lowest tier received admission offers. Applicants need to have a B average or higher to be considered for admissions.
Lisa Green of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, which supports the new admission policy, said she was pleased to see the reintroduction of the exam did not undermine the diversity of accepted applicants gaining admission to the exam schools.
“The old admissions system consistently admitted wildly disproportionate numbers of students from the wealthiest schools and neighborhoods in Boston,” Green said, “and consistently shut out students from the significantly poorer schools and neighborhoods that make up the majority of the city,” she said.
The changes to the exam school admission process have been highly controversial since the effort began three years ago during the pandemic. When the public health emergency made it unsafe to administer the entrance exam in person, school district leaders temporarily stopped the testing requirement and then seized the moment to make other changes to the admission process to diversify admissions.
The first set of changes, under a one-year temporary policy, attracted a federal lawsuit that is currently before the First Circuit Court of Appeals. A group of white and Asian parents filed the suit in 2021 after their children didn’t get into exam schools under the temporary policy that allotted seats by ZIP code.
Implementation of the policy changes have been rough in other ways. BPS made several missteps this year, including miscalculating GPAs for dozens of applicants, sending parents wrong test scores, and classifying some affluent areas of Boston as low-income.
Superintendent Mary Skipper told the School Committee Wednesday that the district is evaluating the new policy with outside researchers, adding, “We know as a district we must do better.”
“Families must trust our process and we have to earn that trust back,” she said. “I can’t fix the past, but I can focus on the future.”