School Committee Set to Vote on New Exam School Process

A Working Group charged to figure out how to bring about a more equitable admissions process during COVID-19 for the City’s three public exam schools has recommended a process that will not use an entry test, and that will distribute seats based more on grade point average, zip code and neighborhood median income.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of NAACP Boston, was the chair of the Exam School Working Group.

It’s a recommendation – which for now stands only for the 2021-22 process – that will likely include fewer invitations and fewer seats for neighborhoods like Charlestown that have a small school-age population, and a very high median income.

Supt. Brenda Cassellius and the Working Group introduced the plan at a School Committee meeting on Oct. 7, and the Committee is reviewing the proposal and is slated for a vote on Oct. 21. It’s a plan that gives a major shift in seat preference and availability to lower income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with a large school-age population.

The biggest change right now is the recommendation to not go forward with a standardized test to help determine entry to the schools – which are Boston Latin School (BLS), Boston Latin Academy (BLA) and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science. Students that would be eligible for entry next year – and who would normally take the test – are in sixth grade (going into seventh next year), eighth grade (going into freshman year of high school next year), and ninth graders that can get a small number of seats in the 10th grade at O’Bryant.

Cassellius told members of the media she didn’t participate much in the Working Group sessions, which included many meetings and lots of conversations, but agreed with the recommendation of having no entry test.

“I am in full support of these recommendations,” she said.

Working Group Chair Tanisha Sullivan said they considered a number of different scenarios with a potential exam school test – including the fact that many of the low-income students and minority students have been more impacted by COVID-19 in their education, their families and their health. Many other families could be apprehensive about sending children into a school building for an in-person exam. To administer a test under these conditions in the fall, she said, just wasn’t going to be feasible.

“The final decision of the Working Group was that it was not fair or feasible to administer an exam this school year in admissions for 2021-22,” she said.

That comes with the backdrop of parents in Charlestown having already prepared their children for the exam school test starting a year ago in some cases, which now comes at a loss unless they were to go ahead with a private school exam. Without the test in play, the Working Group said they looked at data and determined grades are a good indicator of success in the exam schools – particularly for existing Boston Public School (BPS) students. With a ‘B’ average, Sullivan said, they would be able to find success in any of the three schools – according to the data reviewed by the Working Group. However, the Working Group was already at work before COVID-19 to try to make the admissions process more equitable across the city. For years and years, areas with small school-age populations and high median incomes have gained a disproportionately high number of seats. That has always been the case in Charlestown where students are routinely prepared for the admissions test long in advance, while their peers in other parts of the city are not as prepared, and more seats are secured for students in areas like Charlestown. The process for this year, Sullivan and Cassellius said, would be a path towards making the process more fair, and more equitable to all racial and income groups.

“This new mechanism will achieve greater geographic diversity – with more students from more neighborhoods in Boston being able to attend an exam school,” said Sullivan. “We are creating more socio-economic diversity in our exam schools – especially for students in zip codes with the lowest median income. Finally, this mechanism increases the racial and ethnic diversity among all three exam schools.”

The process, if approved by the School Committee, will work in two phases. The first part will be determining the applicant pool. Students who are residents of Boston – attending a BPS school, private, parochial, Metco, or charter school – will be considered if they maintained a ‘B’ average or better in their grades for Fall 2019 and Winter 2020. Also, if they scored high on the MCAS test, that could also be used.

Once the applicant pool is determined, which will be an automatic process for existing BPS students, the schools will rank students by GPA citywide from top to bottom. Of those top 20 percent of student GPAs, they will be automatically invited to the exam schools with no thought to geography or income.

The remaining 80 percent will be a little more involved process. The numbers of seats for each neighborhood will be determined by school-age population in the neighborhood. For Charlestown, there is only 3 percent school-age population, one of the lowest in the City behind the South End and Brighton. Chinatown, interestingly, usually secures many seats, but has one of the lowest school age populations, at 0.8 percent. Conversely, a place like some zip codes in Dorchester have secured very few seats historically, but have nearly 13 percent school-age population. Likewise, East Boston has 9 percent school-age population, but has usually had much fewer secured seats than Charlestown.

Once those seats are determined by each zip code’s school-age population, then GPAs will be ranked within that zip code top to bottom. The top ranked students will fill the available seats. So, Charlestown students will only compete against Charlestown students for seats in the exam schools – rather than competing citywide for the seats. Those securing seats will be invited to be able to attend one of the three exam schools.

To add another equity wrinkle to the process, there will be 10 rounds of school selection for those invited to the selection process, but the selection will be done from the lowest median income zip codes to the highest. Charlestown has the fourth highest median income in the city at $118,226, behind only the Seaport, Downtown Boston, and Beacon Hill. Students in the lowest income zip codes – such as Chinatown, Roxbury, Mattapan, East Boston and parts of Dorchester – will have the opportunity to pick their school choice first, before the high income neighborhoods. That is a move to try to spread out qualified students to all of the exam schools, and not have one school that is heavily-attended by students of color and low-income, and the other schools not so much.

Cassellius said the plan is involved, but she does support it because she said it brings some long-needed equity to the exam schools.

“This plan I was really supportive of and I like it because we have most of the 80 percent of the seats going out proportionally by neighborhood and the poorest kids get the first opportunity,” she said. “That warms my heart. I’m a huge advocate for kids and this is great opportunity and action to even the playing field. Often the children that come to us with very little, they get less. In this instance, they get first access.”

School Committee Chair Michael LoConto said he was proud of the Working Group’s recommendations and looked forward to reviewing them.

“I’m proud of the BPS and the Working Group to have these difficult conversations,” he said. “The fact they were able to create a system that is fairer and increases just opportunities and access is really extraordinary. I feel good about this.”

The plan is being reviewed by the School Committee now, and is planned for a vote on Oct. 21. The recommended plan would only be in effect for this year’s exam school process, but Sullivan said they would continue their work and this would be a road map for the future, likely, if passed.

Those on the Working Group included Sullivan (president, NAACP Boston), Samuel Acevedo, Acacia Aguirre (O’Bryant Parent), Michael Contompasis (former BLS Head of School), Matt Cregor (Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee), Tanya Freeman-Wisdom (O’Bryant Head of School), Katherine Grassa (Curley K-8 Principal – JP), Zena Lum (BLA parent), and Rachel Skerritt (BLS Head of School).

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