When it comes time to register their children in public school, many Boston parents turn to the district’s website to sift through their options. By answering a few questions, parents are given a slate of schools to choose from, including at least six with solid test scores.
But for the past month, the website has
fueled chaos, providing parents with incomplete lists, as well as misleading information about the quality of schools, and prompting officials to scramble for a fix in recent days.
In many cases, the lists included misleading quality ratings, making some schools appear stronger academically than they are. For instance, the Higginson-Lewis K-8 School in Roxbury received a Tier 1 rating — which requires a score of at least 65 — although its actual score was just 31. The ratings are based largely on standardized test scores.
The flawed results, which school officials blamed on the state’s changing of standardized testing systems twice in recent years, have frustrated parents and prompted some advocacy groups to call for a review of the entire school-choice process, a complex system designed to provide all students equitable access to quality schools.
“There’s too much Wizard-of-Oz-behind-the-curtain with this system,” said Peggy Weisenberg, an education advocate who has studied Boston’s school assignment method for years. “How are parents supposed to trust the system?”
The website began producing flawed results after the school department updated its school quality data on Dec. 7 and officials eventually posted a note on the site warning families about the incomplete school lists. The note informed them they could receive a full list of schools at their school registration site or elsewhere on the website.
“Boston should be proud that it is working to provide access and equity to families and young people,” Superintendent Tommy Chang said Friday. “We want to make sure they have access to quality above anything else.”
Chang said the school system is conducting a review of the school-choice process and hopes to have it completed by year’s end.
The website’s search function is based on a formula that generates a customized list of schools within a mile of a student’s home. If at least six schools with strong performance are not produced, the search is broadened. But since the school system adopted the system five years ago to replace a court-ordered desegregation plan, officials have struggled with how to measure school performance. During that span, the state has used three different standardized tests in grades 3 through 8, making it difficult to compare results.
Given all the changes, school officials chose not to penalize schools if their performance appeared to be sliding, but gave them a boost if scores climbed. That artificially expanded the pool of quality schools.
Parag Pathak, the founder of MIT’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative who helped develop the formula, said his team stopped working with the school system sometime after Carol Johnson retired as superintendent five years ago. He said any changes to the formula — or the data it relies on — should be done with care. “If you tinker with the formula in opaque ways, that can be dangerous,” he said.
Matthew Cregor, education project director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said the website foul-up exposes potential cracks in Boston’s school-choice system. His group is one of those calling for a review of the school-choice system.
“In some ways it’s understandable the district would not want to diminish the rating of schools when all these tests are in flux, but the thought that our students might not be getting access to the quality they deserve as a result is profoundly disturbing,” Cregor said.
Several parents, unsatisfied with the school system’s response to the problem, took to social media this week, insisting officials fix the website promptly. School registration began last week, and many families downloaded their school choices weeks ago, using the lists to visit certain schools, talk to friends and neighbors, and compare MCAS scores.
During Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting, Chang said the website would be fixed immediately. By late Thursday, the website was generating proper lists of schools.
Jose Lopez of the Boston Chapter of the NAACP said the school system should run an analysis when it adjusts the school-selection process to determine if changes impact students of certain backgrounds.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “We still have a school district where the quality of education your children receives depends on what school assignment your child gets. This is what the new algorithm was intended to fix.”
In some cases, the choices initially provided to families were limited, according to a Globe review. On Bowdoin Street, in one of the poorest parts of Dorchester, families looking for a pre-kindergarten spot would have been given just six schools to choose from — none of which ranked as high quality. Three of the six received poor scores. If the search had worked correctly, families would have had 17 schools to choose from, the Globe found.
When Boston adopted the school-choice system five years ago, the school system was supposed to produce an annual public report detailing whether students from disadvantaged backgrounds were able to attend high-performing schools. The school system has not followed through.
One persistent concern is that the school system might manipulate the formula to encourage families to choose their neighborhood school, a scenario that would deepen educational inequities. It would also help the school system reduce busing costs, which are running above budget.
“We know there are forces out there that want to move to neighborhood schools,” said Megan Wolf, a member of the grass-roots parent group Quality Education for Every Student, which has been pressing for the annual reports. “Middle-class and upper-middle-class families would be able to buy their way into a good school.”