Could exam school admissions changes have unintended consequences?
Even some supporters question rush to approve revamp
COULD THE CURE be as bad as the disease?
The Boston School Committee appears to be on track to rush through a major change in the admission procedures for next fall for the city’s three selective-entry “exam schools.” The plan, unveiled at a School Committee meeting two weeks ago, is to scrap the use of a combination of standardized test and middle school grades to determine entry and instead rely solely on grades. The proposal would layer over that a system that allocates 80 percent of the seats geographically by zip code, based on the number of school-aged children in different areas of the city.
School officials say the changes are a one-year switch because the pandemic has upended the normal admissions process, but there’s little doubt that this would lay the groundwork for a permanent reworking of admission procedures.
The overarching goal is to promote greater diversity in the make-up of exam schools, especially Boston Latin School, where black and Latino students account for a far smaller share of the student body than their share of the overall Boston Public School population.
But even beyond concerns over the process, there are questions about how the changes will play out and whether there may be unintended consequences from the move.
As the Globe’s James Vaznis reminds readers today, three years ago came a startling report that 69 percent of all exam school applicants from Holy Name Parish School in largely white West Roxbury had an A-plus grade point average. That put a spotlight on the fact that schools all use different standards for grading, with critics suggesting private and parochial schools “inflate” grades in a way that gives their students an advantage in the exam school entry process.
Despite such concerns, school officials estimate that the proposed change would result in an increase in black and Hispanic students offered exam school seats — and a decrease in white and Asian students offered slots.
But even the new geography-based system would come with a lot of unknowns. The Dorchester 02124 zip code that would get the biggest allotment of seats — because it’s home to 12 percent of the city’s school-aged population — includes the largely minority, low-income Codman Square neighborhood, but also solidly middle-class Ashmont Hill and Melville Park and the leafy Lower Mills neighborhood where the mayor lives.
At the meeting two weeks ago, one School Committee member raised questions about the growing gentrification of Roxbury, which means more white families and children from better-off families living in those zip codes.School officials and advocates want to increase the share of black and Hispanic students who have access to exam schools, but court rulings in the 1990s outlawed a system that set aside shares of seats explicitly by race. School leaders are now looking for a way to achieve the goal of greater diversity without running into a legal challenge. Just what degree to which this plan will do the trick seems an open question.