School board approves new admissions policy for ‘exam’ schools

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The Boston School Committee tried, by a unanimous vote, to solve a problem almost a quarter-century in the making Wednesday night. Since a judge threw out a prior system of racial quotas in 1997, the city’s three exam schools — especially the Boston Latin School — have become far whiter and wealthier than the district at large, which is now nearly 75 percent Black and Latino and 63 percent low-income.

At around 6 p.m. Wednesday, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius proposed that, going forward, every student applying to the schools should be judged by their test scores or middle-school grades — but with an eye toward their backgrounds. The new system will not consider race directly, instead comparing eligible students within one of eight socioeconomic “tiers” based on their home addresses.

Cassellius came to Boston in 2019 as an advocate for marginalized students, and a skeptic of standardized tests. In her opening remarks Wednesday, she said, “It’s entirely possible for us to hold two truths at once. It is true that for some of us, this policy doesn’t go as far as we might wish, and we are impatient and frustrated with the pace of our progress.”

“It is also true that we are taking a significant step forward this evening,” Cassellius added, “in our march [toward] greater justice and equity” in Boston’s schools.

The policy is expected to have a leveling effect on the makeup of the exam schools’ incoming classes. According to the district’s own projections — which, they stress, are simulated and based on incomplete data — hundreds more qualified low-income students may get into the selective schools under the new policy starting next year.

Cassellius did not mention another truth in her remarks: that many in the city remain skeptical of — or even hostile to — the change.

Earlier on Wednesday, Cassellius pointedly rolled back a last-minute change made to the proposal drafted by a district task force, one that would have allowed for 20 percent of seats to be allocated through simple citywide academic competition — and would have favored white and wealthier students. Task force members had suggested that change was made under pressure from unnamed politicians.

There were relatively few voices of dissent among among the 50-plus members of the public who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting; most spoke in favor of the change, often enthusiastically.

But over the course of nearly a year of public debate, many have argued that this reform — patterned on one adopted in Chicago in 2009 — will undermine the mission of the selective schools.

Several Asian parents asked for the policy to be amended to give more weight to standardized test scores, which will only count toward 30 percent of students’ overall ratings under the new system.

Judith Nee sounded a similar note, saying she does “understand the attempts to make a level playing field.” But, she asked, “do you really think depriving firefighters’, and civil servants’ kids… is the way to do this? What does it get you, other than deprive everyone of perhaps the one real, authentic step up in the world — by weakening the rigor at [Boston Latin School]?”

Darragh Murphy asked the committee — which is still down two voting members after scandals related to the policy change — to postpone the vote until after the mayoral election. Murphy is part of the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence, which unsuccessfully sued to block a similar, temporary admissions policy earlier this year.

Those legal efforts seem likely to pick up steam in the weeks ahead. William Young, the federal judge who ruled on the case, has withdrawn his opinion in response to allegations that the district withheld text messages that showed former committee members Alex Oliver-Dávila and Lorna Rivera criticizing white parents from West Roxbury during a public meeting on admissions reform.

Shortly before the vote, all of the committee's six remaining members spoke in support of the final recommendation and the public process that yielded it. Committee chair Jeri Robinson noted that she graduated from “Girls Latin” — now the co-ed Boston Latin Academy — before there was an entrance exam, and said the school was “a critical piece in our lives.”

After months of public process, Robinson said the city needs “to have as much passion, and hours … to make sure every student, no matter what school they go to, will feel the pride, will feel the support. This, for me, is just the beginning.”