Commentary: Exam school admissions reform is long overdue

Lew Finfer

The Boston School Committee voted last week to change the Exam School Admissions Policy for the next year. A test will not be administered due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus; instead, 20 percent of the students will be admitted based on grades and the other 80 percent of seats will be allocated to zip codes across the city related to numbers of school-age children.

This policy will likely change the racial and income makeup of the exam schools, which include Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant. That’s a good — and fair— development.

Right now, the neighborhoods of Codman Square, Hyde Park, East Boston, and Grove Hall are home to six times as many middle-school-age youth as West Roxbury. Yet students from West Roxbury take up almost as many seats at BLS as the other neighborhoods combined. My daughter attended Boston Latin School and used to say it was a “Westy school.”

Sixty-nine percent of exam school applicants from Holy Name Catholic School in West Roxbury, the parochial school with the largest number of students enrolled in Boston Latin, had A+ averages in 2017. Is that possible?

I’ve been working on this issue for 15 years. I remember a Boston Latin School teacher saying back in 2005 that all the applicants from Holy Name had A grades. She taught them and thought about half or so were really A students. Grade inflation could have been at work.

In the past, when comparing Boston Public School students who got numerical grades to private and parochial school students who got alphabetical grades, the method ended up favoring private and parochial school students.

Of the three exam schools, Boston Latin School is by far the least diverse. It is overwhelmingly white and Asian in a system that’s overwhelmingly Black and Latino. The other two exam schools, Boston Latin Academy and John D. O’Bryant, are far more diverse.

For many years, one-third of the students at the exam schools had to be Black and Hispanic as part of the federal desegregation court order.  Then in the 1990s, a white parent challenged this for his daughter and won a lower court decision. Civil rights legal organizations held off from appealing the decision, because they felt it may have led to a court ruling against other affirmative action policies.  Boston’s exam schools went to grades and test scores and the number of Black and Latino students fell dramatically in subsequent years.

Exam schools can be a ticket of opportunity for those fortunate enough to attend. I’ve met and worked with that generation of Black and Latino students who attended the exam schools before the diversity declined. They became clergy, community activists, business leaders.  Would that have happened anyway?  For some, yes. But for many others, it may not have without the opportunity.

More white parents can afford to pay for test preparation courses for their children than can Black and Latino parents. This was true for me. I do work for a non-profit and don’t make a big salary, but I had this option when most Black and Latino families did not. My other child struggled with school, though he ended up getting a GED, and we are proud of his work now as an EMT.

I’ve organized meetings on this issue going back to with Mayor Menino and spoken to the last five Boston School superintendents about changing the admissions policy and correcting the comparative grades disparity standard. But they did not act on the issue.

This time around, the efforts of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Boston NAACP led to this change and they should be congratulated. Superintendent Cassellius supported it.  Mayor Walsh had resisted the changes and had shut down a committee considering them three years ago. But, fortunately, he now supports the reforms and we thank him for that. Our organization was proud to sign on to the letter from community groups in support of the changes that was read on the night of the vote last week.

Many have rightly pointed out that we spend too much time on the exam schools when almost all Boston Public School students are not studying in them. It is true: All of our schools need improvement and deserve our focus.

The exam school change is only in place for one year. The test may be reinstated.  But if the allocation of seats across zip codes is not kept, we will return to the old system and Boston Latin School being disproportionately white. And that would not be progress.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident and co-director of the Dorchester based Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

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