CPS supports Exam School Admissions Proposal

October 21, 2020

Dear Mayor Walsh, School Committee Chair Loconto, Superintendent Cassellius, City Council President Janey, and members of the Boston School Committee and City Council:

We, the undersigned civil rights, education justice, and community organizations, offer our full support for the Exam School Admission Criteria Working Group’s admissions proposal for the 2021-2022 school year.  The proposal is an appropriate way to conduct admissions amidst this terrible pandemic, and it is a meaningful move toward equitable representation in Boston’s exam schools.

The harm and upheaval caused by the pandemic warrant recounting only for historical record.  Boston was among the first U.S. “hot spots” of coronavirus outbreak.  Our hospitals operated at surge capacity to treat those infected. Our businesses were closed to limit infection and “flatten the curve.”  Our children’s schooling was upended by sheltering in place, and both grading and the MCAS were suspended for the spring.  Currently, only our students with the greatest needs have returned to in-person schooling and our coronavirus infection rate is increasing again.

In all aspects of the pandemic’s impact, Boston’s Black and Latinx residents were, and are, deeply and disproportionately affected.  Boston’s Black and Latinx residents have contracted, and died from, the coronavirus at greater rates than their neighbors.  Our Black and Latinx residents are both more likely to be essential workers – increasing their exposure to the virus – and more likely to lose their jobs as service industry businesses close.  Given the racial wealth gaps in our city, our Black and Latinx families are less likely to have the financial flexibility to hire a tutor, form a pod, pay for private in-person schooling, increase their wireless connectivity for remote learning, or provide additional educational enrichment for their children. These are traumatic times for all of us, and our students and families of color have been the hardest hit.

Amidst these trying times, the exam school admissions proposal is a sensible and equitable way to recognize our highest performing students.  For the last 20 years, invitations to Boston’s exam schools have been awarded based on a combination of students’ grades and performance on a test.  With coronavirus infection rates increasing and few students allowed to return to schools, now is simply not the time to administer an in-person examination to thousands of students.  Nor would an examination be an accurate measure of a student’s worth given the trauma caused by the pandemic.  This is especially true for Black and Latinx students given the disparities noted above.

In lieu of an exam, the exam school admissions proposal looks only at students’ pre-pandemic grades.  We recognize the limits of this approach: there is no way to bring uniformity to the grading practices of the public, parochial, private, METCO, and charter schools that serve Boston’s students.  Worse still, such an approach is keenly susceptible to the grade inflation already at play in some Boston Schools.  For example, WGBH found that 69% of exam school applicants from Holy Name, the parochial school with the largest number of students enrolled in Boston Latin, had A+ averages in 2016.  (WGBH, Boston Public School Students May Be at a Disadvantage for Getting Into Boston Latin (Sept. 5, 2017)).  For one year, however, grades provide a criterion shared by all applicants before the pandemic exacerbated educational disparities. This is a sensible way to measure student achievement for this year.

The proposal is made far more equitable by its method for awarding invitations to the highest performing students in each of Boston’s zip codes.  In this manner, the proposal offsets not only the difficulties of relying solely on grades, but also the racial and socioeconomic disparities in exam school enrollment 20 years in the making.  Black students are currently enrolled in Boston Latin School (BLS) at their lowest rate since desegregation.  BLS’ Latinx enrollment rate remains what it was in the 1990s, despite a doubling in Latinx students’ application rate since then. The neighborhoods of Codman Square, Hyde Park, East Boston, and Grove Hall are home to six times the number of middle-school-age youth as West Roxbury, yet students from West Roxbury comprise almost as many seats at BLS as the other neighborhoods combined.  (Lawyers for Civil Rights et al, A Broken Mirror: Exam School Admissions Fail to Reflect Boston’s Diversity (2017)).  Specifically, for the 2020-2021 school year, only 6% of all exam school applicants resided in West Roxbury, a community with only 7,115 children under the age of 18. However, 17% of those students invited to BLS live in West Roxbury. 20% of all BLS invitees reside in Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, or South Boston—cumulatively home to 17,579 children—which together made up 13% of all exam school applications. By contrast, only 17% of BLS invitees come from Dorchester, home to over 28,000 children, even though 33% of all exam school applications were submitted from Dorchester.

By allocating 80% of exam school invitations by grades and zip codes, the exam school admissions proposal ensures that the highest performing students of all backgrounds and in all Boston neighborhoods will be attending our exam schools.  And by allocating the first 20% of seats to the highest performing students citywide, the proposal ensures all students, particularly those in neighborhoods with fewer school-age children, have two shots to get in.

We strongly endorse the Exam School Admission Criteria Working Group’s proposal for the 2021-2022 school year, as well as its suggestions for improving educational opportunities in lower grades and continuing its work toward more permanent, post-pandemic admissions criteria.  Boston’s future is brightest when its students of all backgrounds and neighborhoods learn from and with each other, particularly at our most celebrated schools.  This is a rare and welcomed silver lining to the havoc this pandemic has wrought, and a meaningful way to improve educational opportunities across the city.

ACLU of Massachusetts

ADL New England

Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts

Boston Education Justice Alliance

Boston Network for Black Student Achievement

Center for Law and Education

Citizens for Public Schools

Lawyers for Civil Rights

Massachusetts Advocates for Children

Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN)

NAACP Boston Branch

Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts