Boston says error occurred in exam school admissions

District moves to correct mistake impacting 152 students

BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS officials said on Monday that a significant error was made in calculating grade point averages for some students applying to the city’s three exam schools for admission last fall and for the upcoming school year.

The district said the mistake impacted a total of 152 students, with 62 students denied exam school seats who should have been admitted.

The error occurred when the district switched to a new student database in December 2018, and impacted how grades were converted from some Boston Public Schools and non-district schools that use a different grading system than the one used for exam school admissions. It led to some students receiving credit for a lower GPA than they actually earned.

The Boston Public Schools enroll 1,300 new students each year into its three selective admission 7-12 grade exam schools: Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. All three schools accept new students for grades 7 and 9. The students are accepted based on a combination of their score on a standardized test and their GPA from earlier grades.

In a call on Monday with reporters, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the error impacted both students who should have been invited to attend an exam school and students who were admitted to an exam school that was not their preferred choice on their application.

A total of 62 students were denied exam admission who should have been offered a seat, 25 for the 2019-2020 school year and 37 for the upcoming year. Of the group from last year, four were BPS students and 21 were from non-district schools. For the coming school year, two of those mistakenly denied seats were Boston Public Schools students and 35 were non-district students. Ninety students were admitted to an exam school last year or this year but denied their first-choice school because of the error.

Of those denied admission last year, 10 were white, 8 were Latinx, 5 were black and 2 were Asian, the district said. Of the 37 students denied seats for this fall, 12 were black, 11 were Latinx, 9 were white, 1 was Asian, and 4 were of other backgrounds.

Cassellius said the district wanted to be completely transparent and “place sunshine on this error that we made.” The miscalculation was brought to the attention of the district by a student’s tutor, and prompted a recalculation of admission for all students who had applied to exam schools for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years.

Those mistakenly denied admission will be allowed to enroll an exam school this year, while students who admitted to exam schools that were not their first choice will be given the opportunity to change schools if they want.

“We’re making sure we’re calling all those families to apologize,” Cassellius said. She said students not prepared to change schools next month will be allowed to defer the transfer for a year and enter an exam school or switch between exam schools next year fall.

Cassellius, who took the reins as superintendent on July 1, 2019, emphasized that the error was made prior to her arrival.

She said retraining of the staff who made the error will be conducted and disciplinary action against the responsible staff might be considered.

The errors also mean other students were accepted to exam schools who would not have been admitted had the grade conversion error not taken place. Cassellius said those students will be allowed to remain at exam schools, including those who were preparing to begin studies at one of the schools in September.

“Everyone gets to stay,” said Cassellius. “We took a no-harm stance.” Thirty students were mistakenly admitted to exam schools in for the 2019-2020 school year, and 37 were accepted for the 2020-2021 school year.

Admission policies for the city’s three exam schools have been at the center of controversy, with civil rights and education advocates arguing that the current system unfairly denies seats to minority students and those already attending the district’s schools.

Following years of complaints, BPS is preparing to use a new test vendor this year for the standardized exam portion of the admissions process. The GPA error doesn’t directly bear on complaints about the admission test, but one civil rights group that has criticized the use of a test said the mix-up may nonetheless be revealing.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Lawyers for Civil Rights said the fact that there has been no evidence to suggest the 25 students admitted by mistake last year to exam schools have struggled “strongly suggests that the BPS admissions process is arbitrary and disconnected from student success.”

In a statement, the organization repeated its call for the district to “re-evaluate whether grades and an exam score, standing alone, are adequate or sufficient for admission.”