It took a pandemic to get the Boston Public Schools to rethink the way it admits students to the city’s prestigious exam schools. And now that it’s happened, there should be no turning back from changes long overdue to make these schools more representative of Boston.
Permanently eliminating the entrance exam requirement and coming up with an innovative alternative scheme, as has been temporarily done this year, could well bring greater fairness, equity, and racial balance to the admissions process at a critical moment in the city’s history.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius took the lemons handed her by this unprecedented public health crisis and, with the help of a working group of both exam school insiders and community leaders, including the head of the local NAACP, made lemonade.
As the school system wrestled throughout the summer with the shifting environment over in-person versus remote learning, it became increasingly obvious that gathering large numbers of students to take a test that would be a major factor in their possible admission to one of three exam schools simply wasn’t safe or feasible this year.
The working group proposed that this year, in lieu of the entrance exam, 20 percent of admissions to the exam schools would be based on grades. The other 80 percent would be admitted based on both grades and Zip codes — with preference going to students in Zip codes with the lowest incomes and the highest number of school-age children.
The Boston School Committee will be asked to ratify those changes on Wednesday.
“This is an emergency, a one-year exception,” School Committee Chairman Michael Loconto said in an interview. “But one of the suggestions of the working group is to continue to look at modifications.”
Loconto said he finds the data around the current success rate of students admitted based on a B-or-above grade average already “compelling,” adding, “It gives me reason to believe we can get the same results from this incoming class.”
If grades are used as the only criterion for entrance, private schools’ grade inflation can still skew admissions toward exclusion of public school students. But relying on a combination of Zip codes and grades — and using the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test (MCAS) in place of the fraught Independent School Entrance Exam — could go a long way toward building more diverse student bodies at the exam schools.
The use of the entrance exam has long been under fire for exacerbating existing disparities at all three exam schools — Boston Latin Academy, the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, and particularly Boston Latin School. All the schools have a far different ethnic and racial mix than the school district as a whole. District-wide, Black children represent 33 percent of all enrolled students and Latinos 42 percent of all students. But at Latin School, Black enrollment is about 8 percent and Latinos 13 percent.
The Independent School Entrance Exam had been criticized for including material that wasn’t a routine part of the BPS curriculum (thus giving some private-school students and those who could afford tutors an advantage). In 2019, about a third of Latin School’s entering class came from private schools.
Last winter, BPS changed test vendors, but at the time Cassellius told Globe reporters that other than changing the exam, “I’m not looking at a new [entrance] formula.”
On March 1, this editorial board responded, “Tinkering around the edges will not yield much-needed progress toward equity in a city where all schools — not just its crown jewels — are becoming more segregated.”
Then two things changed the landscape: COVID-19 hit and the May killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis brought thousands of demonstrators nightly into the streets demanding racial justice.
The plan put forward by Cassellius this month addresses the moment.
It is creative. It is also controversial — and anything that involves Boston Latin, with its active and elite alumni and parents organization, has always been the third rail of school department politics.
But what this plan can also provide is its own kind of proof of concept that a cohort selected without the entrance exam can do well in the schools. The task force that came up with the plan insisted that students admitted for 2021-22 be provided with additional support, which should help.
This is a chance to broaden the base of educational opportunity in this city and to put that new admissions system to the test. This pandemic has not had many silver linings, but this could be one that shapes Boston’s future for the better.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.