Pulling back the curtain on Boston’s new exam school admissions process

“Obviously the exam school assignment is on the minds of many and we’d like to spend a few minutes pulling the curtain if you want to share what’s involved in the process,” said Denise Snyder, Acting Chief of Family and Community Advancement of BPS. , at a school committee meeting on Wednesday. “We understand on the surface that the process looks like it should be simple and it shouldn’t take that long.”

Here’s an overview of what’s going on:

Why are admissions decisions made so late this year?

The problem: For years, parents in Boston anxiously checked their inboxes or mailboxes in March for exam acceptance letters. Last year, those notifications were pushed back to April as a lawsuit by a group of Asian and white parents went through the federal court system. This year, the letters might not be sent out until the end of April or May.

However, this month, BPS notified families if their children met the GPA eligibility criteria — a B or better — to be considered for admission.

BPS response: “There is no time limit. While BPS recognizes that its current notification schedule is different from previous years’ notification schedule under the old exam school policy, the expected late April/early May deadline for notification of invitations to the The exam school was systematically communicated to families during our winter exam. school information sessions. The district is still on track to notify families of invitations to exam schools within this time frame.

Does BPS run a lottery process for exam schools?

The problem: Several parents were alarmed this month when they received what should have been good news. BPS informed them that their children’s GPA was high enough to be eligible for admission, but letters said their children would be entered into a “lottery process” to determine if they would actually get a place.

A lottery is technically not part of the new exam school admissions system and would represent a seismic shift for BPS. For decades, admission has been based on a rank order of composite scores, which this year consist solely of GPA. (Next year’s test scores will be added.) When students have identical composite scores, BPS randomly assigns numbers to break ties, but has previously insisted it’s not a lottery.

BPS response: “The examination school admissions process has always included an algorithm for the purpose of tie-breaking when applicants have identical composite scores. This algorithm, often called a “lottery,” assigns a random number to applicants with identical composite scores, and that number serves as the tiebreaker when students are vying for the same seat. »

Why did BPS call on an external auditor?

The problem: BPS raised eyebrows among families when they mentioned in recent newsletters that it uses external auditors as part of the admissions process, but provided few details about the nature of their work and why they are involved. . “Our external auditors are currently reviewing the qualification process and supporting work to finalize composite scores, and then qualified applicants will be entered into the assignment round,” the bulletin reads.

This happens to be the second year that BPS has used an external auditor, Ernst & Young, for the exam school admissions process at a total cost of $250,000, according to the contract of last year and its amendment this year. The contract also includes an important note: “EY is not responsible or part of the decision-making process for approving or denying a student’s application to the schools. This is the sole responsibility of Boston Public Schools.

Response from BPS: They use an auditor to avoid incorrect admissions decisions. This is in response to mistakes made by BPS in 2020 and 2019, under the old admissions system. Dozens of students have been wrongly denied admission to an exam school or not given their first choice, while others have been wrongly admitted, due to errors that occurred when BPS converted a variety of grading systems from different schools into a common GPA measure for school-based exam decisions.

BPS believes the audit oversight will help make changes to the admissions process, which began last year under a temporary plan that allocated seats by student grades and zip codes.

BPS declined to say how they would respond to any discrepancies discovered by Ernst & Young.

Is BPS short of exam school candidates this year?

The problem: For the first time, BPS divides applicants into eight socioeconomic levels. Ideally, applicants of similar means compete against each other in rank order within their level. Since the applicant pool tends to attract a disproportionate share of middle-class students, it is questionable whether BPS will have enough applicants for each level.

In an unusual move this month, BPS called parents of eligible students who did not apply and encouraged them to submit applications, well past the deadline. Students attending BPS schools were supposed to apply by February 4 and non-BPS students by December 17.

BPS response: Admissions policy changes over the past two years have prompted additional outreach after the deadline to families of all levels who have eligible children but have not applied. Officials did not say whether they had received enough applicants, adding that they would release the data later.

“Given that this is a new policy and we have been told that many BPS families are unaware of the exam schools, we are taking an extra step to reach out to families to ensure that ‘They’re considering all their options,’ BPS said. “The stated goal of the updated admissions policy was to see enrollment at exam schools align more closely with overall BPS enrollment, so the enrollment of additional BPS students makes part of this strategy.

Another point of view: Lawyers for Civil Rights supports additional outreach, although parents are divided on this: “Information is power. … Some students have known since kindergarten that they will apply to exam schools, but other highly qualified students, including many low-income and colored students, may not have heard of exam schools. examination schools for most of their lives.

That of the Globe Big sharing The team explores educational inequalities in Boston and across the state. Sign up to receive our newsletter and send ideas and advice to [email protected].

James Vaznis can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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