Supt. Cassellius Drops New Recommendations for Exam Schools; Committee Approves

It seems the new Exam School admissions process cannot have a public airing without some sort of dramatic hook – with Supt. Brenda Cassellius intervening on July 14 with a new recommendation that reverts back to assigning coveted seats without the last minute 20 percent carve out that had been suggested.

Drama was the case last Wednesday, July 14, when the School Committee officially – and finally – voted unanimously (5-0) to approve a new Exam School Admissions process for the City’s three exam schools. A full recommendation for a new process had been given earlier this month by the Exam School Admissions Task Force, and it had been surrounded in controversy due to the last minute carve out of 20 percent of the seats having been doled out in a way that did not consider socio-economic status. In that recommendation, 80 percent of the seats would have considered socio-economic status. However, in that same week the Task Force had agreed to assign 100 percent of the seats using a new socio-economic status tier formula based on geographic Census tracts. It was alleged by some Task Force members that unnamed City Councilors had intervened in the process at the last minute to successfully push the 20 percent carve out.

So boiled the stew for the last two weeks of one of the most controversial matters in the City, and one that involves only a minute amount of the population.

Then at the July 14 meeting when the big vote on the matter – more than one year in the making – was to happen, Cassellius flipped the script and brought a recommendation to the Committee restoring the 100 percent system.

“We all must look at the data an don’t be influenced by opinions and ideas that are not substantiated, or are seeded in politics, but rather look at things that are seeded in really strong policy and…consensus,” she said in a rather long introduction leading up to her alternate policy recommendation. “Good policy rises above all the noise…BPS, above all, must restore trust and confidence in our process with our community, which supported our 100 percent application.”

Member Michael O’Neill said he was comfortable with the plan, which he labeled a compromise.

“What the superintendent has put on the table tonight is representative of the Task Force’s work and an acknowledgement of some of the feedback we heard in the public listening sessions,” he said. “It is a compromise position in many respects…This is a recommendation from the superintendent that I am comfortable supporting. It may not be the recommendation that I probably would have drawn up 100 percent my way, but this is a plan that meets the charge laid out for the Task Force…This is an important night for the city.”

Chair Jeri Robinson said she also supported the plan.

“I do agree we have come to a place where we are ready to move this district forward,” she said.

There had been a tremendous amount of testimony from the public on the matter during the five-hour meeting – much of which was devoted to the Exam School issues. Opinions ranged from holding off the vote, to getting rid of the 20 percent, to keeping the 20 percent, to scrapping the plan altogether, and to scrapping the Exam Schools altogether.

In the end, the process voted for separates the system into two phases – eligibility and assignment, which was one of the major changes brought in by the Task Force. It also postpones any entrance exam for this coming year once again, and foresees an entrance exam resurfacing in the fall of 2022. However, once the exam is brought back, it will only count for 30 percent of the student’s ranked score, with 70 percent of their score based on grades. In the fall of 2021 admissions process, the test will be postponed, and grades will account for 100 percent of the criteria – with a B average being required to be considered for eligibility.

Beyond that, there is an eight-tier ranking system to achieve socio-economic equity that is based on Census tracts. All seats are distributed evenly between the tiers, but the lowest income tiers are awarded first, and the highest income tiers last. Students from all over the city will be grouped in the tiers based on the socio-economic conditions in each Census tract – rather than using raw zip codes as was done last fall.

The controversy brewed on just how many seats would be distributed to incoming 7th graders at the three exam schools using the tier system. The final plan puts all 100 percent of the seats into the tier system. The failed carve-out plan set aside 20 percent of all the seats for the top students in the City no matter what their socio-economic status was.

Another change in Cassellius’s plan includes the awarding of extra 10 points to a student’s ranked score if they attend an elementary school that is made up of more than 40 percent low-income students. Previously, that number was 50 percent under the Task Force’s plan. Meanwhile, extra points for students experiencing homelessness, students in the care of DCF and students living in Boston Housing Authority properties remained intact, and they get an extra 15 points on their ranked score.

The Committee and Cassellius said their work now will be to get the word out to parents far and wide, to let them know about the process and the changes before the upcoming school year. The Committee also asked that the issue be revisited in their September meeting, and throughout the coming school term as well.

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