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Much of the attention on America’s exam schools—selective public high schools that accept only students with a certain grade-point average and who perform well on a special exam—has been directed toward Stuyvesant High School in New York, Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Lowell High School in San Francisco. A controversy enveloping Boston’s exam schools demonstrates how “equity” advocates opposed to merit-based admissions will try to remake the nation’s public-school system in the near future.
Boston’s three exam schools—Boston Latin School (BLS), Boston Latin Academy (BLA), and John O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science (O’Bryant)—are among the best public schools in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report, and are ranked as the top three high schools in Boston. For many parents, admission to one of these schools represents a child’s golden ticket to the upper echelon of American society—to an elite college, a white-collar job, and a comfortable life.
Before fall 2020, the process for admission to BLS, BLA, and O’Bryant involved an applicant’s GPA, a standardized test score, and the applicant’s school preference. Administrators at Boston Public Schools (BPS) averaged each applicant’s grades across three subjects and assigned that average a numerical value. This GPA was then added to an applicant’s standardized test score, creating a “composite score” by which applicants were ranked. Each applicant, beginning with the student with the highest composite score, received an invitation to his first choice of Boston’s exam schools. If all the seats in an applicant’s first choice school were taken, then the applicant would be placed in his next choice, and so on.
That admission process changed for the 2021–22 entrance year. The Boston School Committee, the governing body of the public school system, eliminated the standardized test requirement, ranked applicants according to their GPA, and reserved only the first 20 percent of seats at BLS, BLA, and O’Bryant for a citywide competition. Once 20 percent of seats at each exam school were filled, applicants who did not secure one of those seats entered a second round of admissions. In that round, a share of the remaining 80 percent of seats at BLS, BLA, and O’Bryant was allocated to each of Boston’s 29 zip codes (plus one artificial zip code that the school committee created for homeless applicants and those in state custody), based on the proportion of school-age children residing in that zip code. Competition for these seats then took place exclusively within each zip code, as opposed to citywide. Applicants were assigned seats in their respective zip codes on a ranked-choice basis, according to their GPA.
What were the results of this regional quota? The entering classes at Boston’s exam schools for the 2021–22 school year contained significantly fewer Asian-American and white students than in previous years. Asian-American and white students received less than half of all available offers, down from 61 percent the previous year, before the admissions change.
Because GPAs in predominantly Asian-American and white zip codes were higher than those in predominantly black and Latino zip codes, competition was stiffer in the former areas. The average GPA of admitted students from the 20 zip codes whose population is least 55 percent white and Asian-American ranged between 10.32 to 11.56. The average GPA of admitted students from the seven zip codes whose population is at least 55 percent black and Latino population ranged between 9.51 to 10.67. (BPS converted GPAs to a 12-point scale for averaging, with 1 being the lowest possible score and 12 the highest possible score.) What’s more, out of the 292 students admitted to an exam school with an average GPA below 10, 210 of them came from one of the seven zip codes that were predominantly black and Latino. The new admissions process made it harder for white and Asian-American children to gain a seat at Boston’s exam schools.
These results led the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence, a Massachusetts nonprofit dedicated to promoting merit-based admissions at Boston’s exam schools, to file suit against the school committee, on behalf of 14 parent-members and their sixth-graders, all of whom were either white or Asian-American and applying to the exam schools at the time. These families argued that the new admissions process violated their equal protection rights.
Unsurprisingly, the school committee denied any wrongdoing. It argued that under current Supreme Court precedent, disparate impact resulting from a policy that is facially race-neutral isn’t enough to prove discrimination. For that, the coalition would need to show that the school committee replaced the citywide admissions process for Boston’s exam schools with a zip code quota in order to make it harder for white and Asian-American students to get a seat.
Demonstrating that intention was simple enough. The school committee had created a separate working group during the admissions change whose members weren’t shy about sharing how race—specifically racial balancing—was their primary focus. One member, BPS Opportunity and Achievement Gap Task Force Co-Chair Samuel Acevedo, told the school committee that an “imperative” facing them was “rectifying historic racial inequities afflicting exam school admissions for generations.” Another member, local NAACP branch president Tanisha Sullivan, said that racial gaps in assessment scores and GPA between white and Asian-American students, on one hand, and black and Latino students, on the other, “played a significant role in what we will ultimately recommend.” She then presented slides detailing a “projected shift” in the racial composition of Boston’s exam schools under the new admissions policy, showing a clear gain for black and Latino students and a corresponding loss for Asian-American and white students.
School committee members were even more transparent. One such member, Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, said she “want[s] to see those schools reflect the district. There’s no excuse, you know, for why they shouldn’t reflect the district, which has a larger Latino population and black African-American population.” Meantime, the committee chairman, Michael Loconto, was caught on a microphone ridiculing the names of Asian-American parents who had signed up to share their opposition to the zip-code quota at a school committee meeting.
Despite all this, the district court twice ruled in favor of the school committee. The coalition appealed the decision to the First Circuit, which heard oral arguments for the case last month.
Boston Public Schools rescinded the zip-code quota in June 2021 and replaced it with an admissions policy similar to the old citywide process. In response, some advocates of merit-based admissions have argued that the matter is no longer worthy of attention.
But six of the students who, with their parents, filed the initial lawsuit against the school committee were denied admission to Boston’s exam schools. Of these six students, five would have been admitted under a citywide competition, which is why the coalition has asked the First Circuit to order BPS to give them seats at BLS, BLA, or O’Bryant.
Moreover, the case of Boston’s exam schools provides insight into how equity-minded educators can discriminate on the basis of race in admissions, even as they claim that they are not doing so: through the clever deployment of means that are racially neutral on their face but in fact designed to penalize certain racial groups. With the Supreme Court seemingly poised to overturn affirmative action later this year, such efforts in both K-12 and higher education will only intensify.
Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images