Boston students attending suburban schools under a voluntary desegregation program dramatically outperformed their peers in the Boston school system and charter schools on two key barometers — graduating from high school on time and enrolling in college, according to a new report by a Harvard University researcher.
The four-year graduation rate for students in the Metco program was about 30 percentage points higher than for students of similar demographics in the Boston Public Schools and Boston charter schools.
Similarly, the college-enrollment rate of Metco students was 30 percentage points higher than BPS students and 11 percentage points higher than charter school students.
While the report did not investigate the reasons behind the differences in performance, Ann Mantil, who conducted the research as a doctoral student the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said one potential explanation was the effect of being in a school with other aspirational kids.
“The [Metco] students are surrounded by kids all on the college track,” she said, noting it could influence their study habits, the kinds of courses they take and the number of extracurricular activities they participate in.
The research offers the latest evidence that the 53-year-old Metco program delivers a distinct academic advantage to the 3,100 Boston students who sacrifice many hours every week commuting to 33 suburban districts in pursuit of greater educational opportunities.
But not all the findings were rosy. An analysis of MCAS scores in grades 3-8 revealed that while Metco students scored significantly higher than their peers of similar demographics in Boston Public Schools in English and writing, they earned comparable results in math.
Charter schools, on the other hand, outperformed Metco students in all three subjects, though the difference in scores in English and writing were so small that they “may be due to chance alone,” the report said.
Milagros Arbaje-Thomas, chief executive of Metco, known formally as the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity Inc., said the findings show the need to expand such voluntary integration programs, arguing that it prepares both urban students and those in racially isolated communities to be global citizens in a diverse workforce.
“Even if BPS has the best schools in the future, there is still a need for Metco,” she said.
“Is racism over in this country?” she added. “As long as that threat exists, we still have a need for Metco.”
The new research comes as Metco is embarking on a radical change in its application process, which has for decades operated under a first-come, first-served basis that has allowed families to submit applications as soon as their children are born. Consequently, the program has a waiting list of 15,000 children, almost half of whom are infants or toddlers.
The program, which relies on word of mouth for marketing, has not kept pace with the changing demographics of Boston’s school-age population, especially the growing number of Latino students. During the 2011-12 school year, for instance, about three-quarters of Metco students in kindergarten through Grade 8 were black, compared to 32 percent in the Boston school system and 57 percent in charter schools, the Harvard research said.
Half of Metco students were low income, while three-quarters of those in the Boston system and charters were. And 3 percent of Metco students had language barriers while almost a third of those in the Boston system were not fluent in English.
Metco has proposed limiting the acceptance of applications to the fall preceding the next school year and then using a randomized system for picking students.
In her research findings, Mantil acknowledged that Metco’s current application process presented challenges in comparing the performance of its students with those in Boston, even when controlling for differences in student populations.
To confirm the reliability of the findings, Mantil ran a second batch of data that examined only outcomes for Metco applicants who received a referral to a suburban school and those whose applications were never considered.
Applicants who received a referral — most of them ultimately enrolled in Metco — outperformed those who never had their files reviewed by a suburban school. For instance, applicants receiving referrals had four-year high school graduation and college enrollment rates that were 18 percentage points higher than applicants who never had their files reviewed by a suburban school.
On the MCAS, however, applicants receiving referrals showed slightly better performance in English and writing, while results in math essentially revealed no differences. Most of the non-referred Metco students ultimately enrolled in a Massachusetts public school, typically in Boston.
The report analyzed Metco application records from 1998 through 2013 and state and federal data. The MCAS analysis involved 118,000 scores from 36,780 students in Metco, the Boston school system, and charter schools.
Arbaje-Thomas said many suburban districts have been increasing their support for Metco students and othersstruggling in math.
Barbara Hamilton, academic director for Lexington’s Metco program, said her school system is continuously looking for ways to improve the educational experience. Currently, she said, the high school is reviewing the criteria it uses to enroll students in honors and Advanced Placement courses to see if it can increase the representation of black and Latino students.
Daniel Gutekanst, superintendent of Needham schools who sits on Metco’s board of directors, said he was not surprised that MCAS results were uneven when compared to students in the Boston school system and charters, noting those schools place more emphasis on the MCAS.
“MCAS is an important tool — we do pay attention to it in Needham — but it’s not the only tool in town,” he said.
The Boston school system said it was looking forward to analyzing the findings.
“While we have not yet had access to the results of this particular study, the district recognizes the inherent value in the Metco program and the unique opportunities that it affords students,” the system said in a statement.
The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, which also has not seen the findings, declined to comment.
Nick Vance, a Metco student who graduated from Bedford High School in 2009, credits the program for pushing him on the right trajectory for success in college — earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree — and beyond.
But it was humbling at first, he said. He went from being an A-student at a Roxbury school, which has since closed, to a C-student when he transferred to Bedford in the fifth grade in 2001. It was the first time, he said, that he sat in a classroom where all the students looked different from him.
“It was like no other experience I had,” he said. “It forced me to change my perceptions, work harder, and develop new study skills.”
He said he was amazed at the academic programs, noting that in the fifth grade they dissected a cow. He participated in athletics when he got older, sat on the School Committee as a student representative his junior year, and by the time he got to college was able to test out of several classes. “We just had so many different resources and programs, and the things I could be part of were transformative,” he said. “That community really pushed college.”