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Meifeng Jiang with her daughter, 12-year-old Emily Chan, who is one of about 3,000 students vying for seats in Boston’s exam schools this year. Credit: Meifeng Jiang

Emily Chan is in sixth grade, the crucial year to get into one of Boston’s three exam schools, which serve grades 7 to 12. In the past, the pressure of the entrance test has been intense, and Emily wasn’t planning to apply.  

But for the first time in nearly 60 years, students won’t have to sweat through an exam to land a spot. Instead, Emily was invited to apply based on her pre-pandemic academic record. So she threw her name in for all three schools.

Emily, 12, lives in Boston’s South End with her parents, a homemaker and a cafeteria worker, both immigrants from China. Her mother, Meifeng Jiang, said she hopes a golden ticket to one of the city’s top-ranked schools will set Emily on a path to become a doctor.

“I just want her to succeed, to have more opportunities,” Jiang said through a Cantonese translator. Emily, who loves math and wants to be a pharmacist, said that she’s nervous about how hard the classes may be but that she’s eager for a “better education.”

The one-year change in admissions policy was prompted by the pandemic and a desire to diversify the selective schools, in which Black and Latino students are underrepresented. For the first time, the city plans to use ZIP codes to place students, along with their GPAs, with priority given to low-income areas.

The move is spurring hope among school desegregation advocates who want the exam schools to look more like Boston’s public schools overall. But the temporary change has also been met with outrage: Some say eliminating the tests could destroy the very backbone and utility of exam schools.

In Boston, protests have erupted over whether the new admissions process is fair, especially to white and Asian students in neighborhoods that stand to lose seats in the schools. (The South End, where Emily lives, is projected to lose several seats, although the change also opens up opportunities to local students who were previously reluctant to take the admissions test.) A group of parents sued last month to stop the change; a trial kicked off in federal court this week.

“Covid is a fake cover story for those who want to kill the exam,” said parent activist Darragh Murphy, a white woman who attended Boston Latin School in the 1980s. The new policy stands to degrade academic standards and exclude students based on race, she argued, calling it “a backdoor attempt to dismantle the exam school system altogether.”

“Covid is a fake cover story for those who want to kill the exam.”

Darragh Murphy, a Boston parent activist

Ninety percent of graduates at the city’s exam schools — Boston Latin Academy, Boston Latin School and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — go to college, compared with 55 percent in the rest of the district, according to state data from 2019. Black and Hispanic students make up only 21 percent of students at Boston Latin School, the city’s top-ranked school, but 72 percent of the district. They are 48 percent of students at Boston Latin Academy and 66 percent of students at O’Bryant.

“That disparity in access to high-quality elite education is deeply concerning,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston.

Related: Why decades of trying to end racial segregation in gifted education haven’t worked

Debates over racial segregation in exam schools were already raging around the country before the chaos of the pandemic hit. Over 100,000 high school students were enrolled in 165 competitive, academically selective schools in 30 states, most of which used exam results for admissions, researchers Chester Finn Jr. and Jessica Hockett found in 2012.

While exam schools are a small subset of American schools, they loom large symbolically, both as free tickets to success in college and career and as elite institutions that can widen societal inequalities in some of the country’s neediest districts. They’re the most prominent part of a wider group of selective public middle and high schools — which base admissions on factors like grades, attendance and state test scores — in which poor, Black and Latino students are typically underrepresented. In many cities, such schools are the pinnacle of academic tracking systems that sometimes begin sorting children by age 4.

Parents and students demonstrate against New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio’s plans to remove the SHSAT, a standardized test, requirement for admission to the city’s elite public high schools, on September 9, 2018, in New York City Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Now, as districts grapple with the fairest way to handle selective school admissions during the pandemic, when students’ lives have been upended and many other in-person tests are being canceled for fear of coronavirus transmission, the debate over what to do about exam schools has become even louder and more urgent.

Decisions to change decades-old admissions practices come during a nationwide racial reckoning over the systemic oppression of Black Americans. They raise questions about what public schools are for: sorting students, giving everyone an equal opportunity or somehow both?  Debates about the schools also highlight the conflict for school leaders over how to support higher-achieving students without creating a two-tiered system that perpetuates racial oppression.

In San Francisco, Lowell High School is going through perhaps the most dramatic change, replacing merit-based screens with a lottery, after racist incidents contributed to calls to diversify the school. In Alexandria, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology scrapped its entrance exam and is conducting a “holistic review” of applicants based on their GPAs, essays and other factors. New York City’s school district lifted academic admissions screens for middle schools but kept its entrance exam for selective high schools.

In Boston, the new process will award the first 20 percent of exam school seats to top-performing students citywide based on GPAs. The remaining seats will be divvied up by ZIP code, with lower-income ZIP codes given highest priority. To get into the applicant pool, students had to earn at least a B average in English and math or have scored at grade level in those subjects on state tests before the pandemic hit.

“Abandoning a test for Boston’s exam schools, with no viable alternative admissions process, only causes more uncertainty and disruption, not less.”

Sarah Zaphiris, 44, a white Boston Latin School alumna

The process opens admissions to students who may not have known about the entrance exam, didn’t see themselves as belonging at the schools or weren’t able to pay for test prep classes. The district’s explicit goal is to create more “racial, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity” in the exam schools, which includes boosting Black and Latino student enrollment.

But will it work?

As students await school placement in April, it’s unclear whether more Black and Latino students will enroll in the short term and whether the change can withstand legal challenges and last beyond the pandemic.

Related: Getting rid of gifted programs: Trying to teach students at all levels together in one class

A group called the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence is suing Boston Public Schools in U.S. District Court, arguing that the new exam school admissions policy violates students’ constitutional rights by using ZIP codes as a proxy for race and ethnicity. The suit was filed in late February on behalf of 14 sixth grade students of white, Asian and Indian descent who applied to exam schools this year.

The process will “artificially favor Latino and African American students to the detriment of Asian and white students,” the suit reads. The suit asks a federal judge to halt the admissions process and instead order the schools to admit students based on GPA alone.

“As parents, we want our children to have a fair opportunity to earn admission to the exam schools and enjoy the unsurpassed educational opportunities those schools offer,” Bentao Cui, president of the parent group, said in a news release.

Boston Public Schools spokesperson Xavier Andrews declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Protesters calling for Boston schools to keep the admission exam for the city’s elite exam schools rally outside of Boston Latin School in Boston on October 18, 2020. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A group of civil rights organizations, including the NAACP Boston Branch, the Greater Boston Latino Network, the Asian Pacific Islanders Civic Action Network and the Asian American Resource Workshop, as well as three families of color, are intervening in the lawsuit to try to uphold the new admissions process.

Espinoza-Madrigal of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which is representing the intervenors, said before the lawsuit was filed that there’s “a tremendous sense of urgency for us” to help Black and Latino students gain access to high-quality education, especially during the pandemic, when many families face food and housing insecurity. “We see the exam schools as a viable platform for families to escape poverty.”

José Valenzuela, who is Latino, enrolled in Boston Latin School in 1997, the final year a racial quota was used in admissions before it was overturned in court. He said he has been saddened to see the numbers of Black and Latino students dwindle since then. He said he agrees that Boston ZIP codes can be a proxy for race, because Boston is so segregated. But they’re a useful and legal tool to diversify enrollment, he argued.

“We have far too many kids in the city who just need an opportunity like I did, to go to a school that pushes them,” said Valenzuela, who teaches history at Boston Latin Academy.

Khymani James, 17, a Black senior at Boston Latin Academy and former student member of Boston’s School Committee, said he opposes entrance exams because Black and Latino students don’t have the same resources as other students to prepare for, take and succeed on the tests.

He said he’d rather “abolish” the exam schools and equitably fund all public schools. But he said he supports the new ZIP-code based admissions policy, calling it “the best route to diversifying our exam schools.”

He said the lawsuit made him angry.

“We have the white and Asian parents going to court saying, ‘My child is being discriminated against,’ because Black and Latinx students are finally being given a chance to succeed?” he said. “That’s sad.”

Related: Should we screen kids’ genes to ‘predict’ how successful they’ll be in school?

Boston Latin School, the nation’s oldest public school and one of its most prestigious, has an alumni association with a full-time staff and an endowment of over $60 million, officials said. The largest of the city’s exam schools, it boasts 26 Advanced Placement courses, including Latin and music theory.

Once they enroll, Black and Latino students at Boston’s exam schools are as likely as their white counterparts to stay enrolled through the 12th grade, said Melanie Rucinski, a doctoral student at the Harvard Kennedy School who co-authored a 2018 report on the topic. But Black and Latino students have faced obstacles at every step of the admissions process to Boston exam schools, she found.

Counter-protesters stand across the street from a rally outside of Boston Latin School that called for Boston schools to keep an admission exam in place for entry into elite exam schools in Boston on October 18, 2020. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Until this year, admissions were based half on the Independent School Entrance Exam, or ISEE, and half on GPA. Black and Latino students were less likely than their white and Asian classmates to take the exam — and those who did scored lower than white and Asian students with similar fifth grade state test scores, the report found.

One reason Black and Latino students may not have been choosing Boston Latin School is a “harsh and unwelcoming” school culture for Black and Latino students, said Zoe Nagasawa, an Asian American senior at Boston Latin School who interviewed students for a report she co-authored last summer. School culture affects whether students apply and decide to attend, and those decisions affect school culture, she found.

In 2016, students at Boston Latin School came forward with accounts of racial hostility on campus, sparking a movement dubbed “#BlackatBLS” that drew national attention. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts found that the school violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to respond appropriately to allegations that a student threatened to lynch a Black classmate. The U.S. attorney’s office also found that the school meted out discipline inconsistently.  The headmaster and the assistant headmaster resigned. 

The incidents “would not have taken root if there had been a critical mass of students of color at the institution,” Espinoza-Madrigal said, calling it another outcome of a biased admissions process.

Related: Is it time to stop segregating kids by ability in middle school math?

His group sent a letter to the district in 2019 alleging racial discrimination in exam school admissions. Early last year, the district decided to scrap the ISEE test. Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the exam was unfair because it tested material that wasn’t taught in Boston Public Schools and thus required outside preparation. The district opted to switch to a new entrance exam, the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP.

But “then the pandemic hit,” Cassellius said in an interview in February. A district task force recommended suspending entrance tests for one year and using GPAs and ZIP codes, instead. Cassellius said the new process aims for “geographic representation” and fairness. “It was our best step forward,” given the constraints of the pandemic, she said.

The recommendation drew parents to the streets in dueling protests last fall.

Sarah Zaphiris, 44, a white Boston Latin School alumna in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, started a petition, which drew nearly 6,000 signatures, urging the district to go ahead with the MAP test.

“Abandoning a test for Boston’s exam schools, with no viable alternative admissions process, only causes more uncertainty and disruption, not less,” she wrote.

“I just want her to succeed, to have more opportunities.”

Meifeng Jiang, a Chinese immigrant whose daughter is applying to Boston’s exam schools

Zaphiris’ daughter, who is enrolled in a private school, is applying to Boston exam schools, ranking Boston Latin School first. If Boston’s plan holds up in court, she’ll be competing with other students in her ZIP code based on her GPA, which Zaphiris worries will be unfair if grading practices differ among schools.

After a marathon meeting in October with passionate public comment, Boston’s School Committee voted to suspend the entrance exam and adopt the new ZIP code policy for one year. At the meeting, committee Chairman Michael Loconto was caught on a hot mic mocking the last names of Asian parents who had signed up to testify — remarks that stung extra hard for Asian families who were already feeling targeted by the new process. Amid public outrage, he later apologized and resigned.

Under the school district’s new ZIP code-based admissions policy, the district projects that predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods will gain seats in exam schools, while neighborhoods with more white and Asian students will lose seats. For instance, under the district’s simulations, the number of exam school invitations students receive is expected to drop from 133 to 76 in West Roxbury and from 24 to 10 in Chinatown. Neighborhoods with large Black populations, including Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, are projected to gain seats.

It’s not clear whether those simulations will be accurate. The district’s effort to attract more underrepresented students to exam schools doesn’t look promising: Total applications dropped by 25 percent this year, to about 3,000 by mid-February, according to Monica Roberts, the district’s chief of student, family and community advancement.

The district initially set a January deadline to apply. But as of early March, district staff members were still reaching out to Boston sixth graders who are eligible for admission but hadn’t applied, according to Andrews, the spokesperson.

In Boston and elsewhere, many Asian families and advocates have argued that the movement to diversify the schools ignores the fact that the Asian community is very diverse economically and ethnically.

Asian American advocates who are supporting Boston’s new admissions process argued that lower-income Asian American students don’t have money to hire private tutors or to take private test prep courses that would give them an edge on entrance exams.

“That disparity in access to high-quality elite education is deeply concerning.”

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director for Lawyers for Civil Rights

“Many Asian students are children of restaurant, hotel, home care and nail salon workers, and their families struggle with access to education,” Carolyn Chou, a steering committee member of the Asian Pacific Islanders Civic Action Network, said in a news release about the lawsuit.

One reason applications may be down this year is that, during the pandemic, Boston’s public schools were closed for in-person learning, along with many community centers and after-school programs that might otherwise have encouraged families to apply.

In January, the Rev. Willie Bodrick II, president of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement, said the topic wasn’t high on families’ radars.

“The biggest priority has been school reopening,” he said.

Meanwhile, the debate in Boston is far from over. The judge is scheduled to decide by April 15, and the city is beginning to examine how to handle admissions next year, which are already hotly contested.

If Boston goes forward with admissions as planned, Espinoza-Madrigal said, he hopes “that the academic success of the entering class will make clear that the quality of the education will not suffer if we adopt more democratic admissions criteria.” 

“We believe there is no tension between diversity and academic excellence,” he said.

This story about exam schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Melissa Bailey is a Boston-based freelance journalist and 2015 Nieman Journalism Fellow. She is working on Lost on the Frontline, a project by Kaiser Health News and The Guardian documenting the lives...

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