Exam School Admission Task Force Puts Off Test for This Fall, Embroiled in Further Controversy

For just a small fraction of the Boston Public School (BPS) student population, the Exam Schools have proffered no shortage of controversy and outsized attention this year.

That was on display last Wednesday, June 30, when the Exam School Admissions Task Force co-chairs Tanisha Sullivan and Michael Contompasis presented their recommendations to the full School Committee amidst controversy and a recommendation for delaying the administration of the entrance exam another year.

The recommendations were to be discussed once more at a School Committee meeting on July 7, and then they are expected to come up for a vote on July 14 – with that vote ushering in a permanent change to an admissions process that has been under examination since prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The City’s three exam schools include Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and O’Bryant High.

The recommendations as presented were supported by both co-chairs and Supt. Brenda Cassellius, but many on the Task Force were very upset by a sudden change in the recommendations last Tuesday night, June 29, and as such presented a dissenting viewpoint at the meeting charging that “powerful” politicians intervened for “affluent” Bostonians to cook the process toward their style of stew.

The change came in a last-minute addition to how seat invitations were allocated – with a new 20 percent of seats carved out citywide and not subject to the new socio-economic status tiers that were recommended. Previously, 100 percent of the seats were under the socioeconomic tier system, but the final recommendation only included 80 percent, with the new 20 percent carve out to go to the top students ranked citywide without consideration of socioeconomic tiers.

Members Dr. Rosann Tung and Simon Chernow, who just graduated from Boston Latin Academy this spring, delivered the dissent and alleged politics upstaged hundreds of hours of work to get to a consensus among the Task Force.

“Reserving seats for the privileged goes against our charge,” Chernow said.

“We were asked to throw democracy and open meeting rules out the window,” he said. “We weren’t even given the chance to vote. Behind closed doors, powerful people formed a recommendation that ended hundreds of hours of Task Force members’ work. It is an insult to people who bravely gave public comment…Their voices will never be prioritized and elite and powerful Bostonians went above them and reversed the strides BPS made…What happened (June 29) will go down as a step in the wrong direction. We feel angry and demoralized by this last ditch effort.”

He said he hoped that the politicians that changed things would be outed and the voters could decide whether they should remain in office, though he did not disclose any names.

Supt. Cassellius said she did support the recommendations, even with the 20 percent carve out.

“If you told me two years ago we’d be bringing you a policy that increased equitable access to our Exam Schools for all students, I wouldn’t have believed it would have come this soon,” she said. “We live in a divided country and we have divisions within our own city. To say our Exam Schools are a third rail or a hot topic in our City is really an understatement.”

She also added that the system cannot go on with the perception that there are only three good high schools, and they are the three Exam Schools. She said the high school re-design program aims to fix that situation so there is equal rigor in all high schools across the city, whether Exam Schools, Application Schools or Open Enrollment Schools.

Sullivan said the recommendations come from more than 60 hours of meetings over the last few months, with 24 meetings and four public listening sessions since February. A change from the past is they have separated the eligibility process from invitation process – making two different processes, which was hailed by some School Committee members.

A key change in the upcoming admission cycle, 2022-23, is that there will be no test for a second year, though the test is expected to be reinstated for the 2023-24 cycle.

“You will see the absence of an assessment in the school year 2022-23,” said Contompasis. “It is the strong feeling of the Task Force that due to the pandemic, it would not really be fair to offer an assessment in this year to students, many of whom had disruption to their education through no fault of their own.”

For the upcoming 2022-23 cycle, the eligibility will be based on grades, with a B average or higher the standard. There will also be a new system created for High Poverty Indicators which gives extra points to students in tough situations.

For instance, students attending a school with 50 percent or more of students identified as economically disadvantaged would get an extra 10 points in the invitation process. Likewise, students experiencing homelessness, students in the care of DCF and students living in Boston Housing Authority properties would get an extra 15 points in the invitation process.

In 2023-24, the assessment would be reintroduced, but would only count for 30 percent of students ranked score, while grades would account for 70 percent. High Poverty Indicators would continue to offer 10 and 15 extra points for those in tough circumstances.

The controversial piece came in how invitations are distributed after the eligibility and ranking process has transpired, and that is where the new 20 percent citywide carve out was introduced to the disdain of some members.

That controversy erupted due to the new socioeconomic tier system that was introduced based on Census Tracts – which is believed to be fairer than was the use of zip codes this past year. Using socioeconomic data from the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census, students would be grouped into similar socioeconomic Census Tracts and seats would be doled out starting from the lowest-income tracts to the highest income tracts.

That system was immediately applauded by Committee member Michael O’Neill – who said many zip codes in Boston can have tremendous wealth and tremendous poverty in the same area.

“We all know neighborhoods in the City where you see huge socio-economic changes within a block and I think zip codes can hide that,” he said.

The controversy in the recommendations came because 100 percent of the seats were to be decided based on that socioeconomic system using the ranked list and choosing students based upon Census Tract. However, the 20 percent carve out that exists outside that process was introduced late in the game, and obviously some were unhappy.

Sullivan and Contompasis said the carve out came from looking at how Chicago Public Schools implemented their socioeconomic tier system. There, they have a 30 percent citywide carve out, and then 70 percent of the seats are based on the tier system. They said they looked at 40/60, 30/70, and 20/80, and did have simulations run to see how they would work in real time – simulations that they said would likely be public.

Sullivan added that the Task Force never intended to take a vote, so complaints about not voting June 29 were unfounded.

“We did not take a formal vote on either recommendations,” she said. “The goal was to get to consensus.”

As a sobriety check point in the exhaustive Exam School Admissions discussion, many stopped to say that there needed to be less concern about Exam Schools and more concern about the 50,000 other students in the district. Both Sullivan and Supt. Cassellius said as much in their comments.

Will Austin, of the Boston Schools Fund, said in his discussion of the meeting that a good lesson from this process would be to see that there is too much attention paid to where 190 kids will go to 7th grade next year.

“Very rarely in education do our policy decisions become so pitched, so zero sum, over such a small number of kids,” he wrote. “If the final crux of the debate is truly about the top 20 percent and who has the straightest line to Boston Latin School, then we are potentially talking about a 190 or so kids…The exam school task force met 24 times. The meetings were observed by thousands of people.  One of its recommendations nearly ground city government to a halt…We cannot achieve a vision of equitable access and opportunity to high-quality schools in Boston if we continue to limit our time and attention to controversy, clicks, and where 190 7th graders may go to school to in the fall of 2022.”

The School Committee is likely to vote on the recommendations on July 14.

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