Boston to consider awarding exam school seats by neighborhood

School committee will consider major shift in entry standards 

BOSTON SCHOOL LEADERS are proposing a dramatic shift in the admission policies for the city’s three exam schools for entry next fall, moving away from a test-based system to one based on a combination of grades and the neighborhoods where students live.

The proposal, which will be presented to the city’s School Committee on Thursday night, would represent the biggest change in decades to exam school entry requirements, a contentious issue that has been the subject of earlier court challenges and is now being raised as part of broader national conversations on racial justice. 

Seats at the city’s three 7-12 grade selective admission schools are currently awarded based on a combination of a student’s elementary school grades and score on an standardized admission test. The city recently switched to a new test provider, based on bias and equity concerns, but the scheduled November administration of the test has been upended by the pandemic. 

A working group formed by the school department worked over the summer to develop a proposal for handling admissions for fall 2021. They are proposing that students be eligible for the exam school admission pool if they had a GPA of B or higher during the first two semesters of the 2019-2020 school prior to the pandemic onset or scored in one of the top categories of the 2019 MCAS exam for English and math. 

From that pool, 20 percent of exam school seats would be awarded based solely on GPA ranking. The remaining 80 percent of seats would be distributed geographically based on the number of school-aged children in a city ZIP code. Seats within ZIP codes would then be awarded based on GPA ranking.

According to a School Department presentation, the 02124 ZIP code, which covers a large swath of Dorchester and is home to 12 percent of the city’s school-aged children, would have the most seats. By contrast, the ZIP codes for Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury are each home to about 5 percent of Boston’s school-age population, and Chinatown accounts for fewer than 1 percent. 

If adopted, the change seems certain to increase the enrollment of black and Latino students at the selective 7-12 grade schools. At Boston Latin School, black students account for 8 percent of the study body, despite representing 30 percent of the overall Boston Public Schools population. Hispanic students represent 13 percent of the school population, but 42 percent of the district population. An analysis shared by the working group suggested the representation of black and Hispanic students offered seats at exam schools would increase by 11 percentage points next fall if the new policy is adopted. 

School officials say the proposed change would only apply to admissions for the 2021-22 school year, but if approved, the plan seems certain to lead to discussion of permanent changes that move away from a solely test- and grade-based admission system. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“I want to reiterate for folks that this is a one-year solution, but this is also a solution that is part of a continuum,” said School Committee chairman Michael Loconto at Thursday night’s meeting.