Elite magnet schools try to attract diversity
Elite Boston academy changes its admissions standards, sparking controversy
In mid-July, Ruthzee Louijeune joined a Zoom meeting to urge a change at the United States’ oldest school, the rigorous and selective Boston Latin School. Louijeune, a BLS alumnus who went on to graduate from Harvard, told the school committee she was able to attend because her father, an immigrant from Haiti, found a free course to prepare her for the admissions exam.
“In the years that followed free prep courses have disappeared,” Louijeune said. “That is unjust.”
After hours of testimony for and against the decision, the city’s school committee voted to supplement the admissions policy for its three public exam schools—including Boston Latin School—with a weighted combination of students’ GPA and socioeconomic factors like poverty, homelessness, and time in foster care. It’s the latest in a string of high-profile efforts to rework admissions at selective middle and high schools to boost racial and economic diversity.
The old admission system ranked students by grades and admissions test scores, spawning a tutoring and test preparation culture that favored kids whose parents had time and money to prepare them for the exam. It also resulted in a disproportionately white and Asian student body. Last year, BLS had a 29 percent Asian class despite being in a 9 percent Asian school district, and a 45 percent white class in a 15 percent white district. By boosting students’ admissions rankings based on poverty and other factors, the school hopes to help students with high aptitude from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Fairfax County, Va., recently made a similar change to admissions at its prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Like BLS, the school’s test-based admissions yielded disproportionately white and Asian classes. Parents sued, arguing the new policy would shut out Asian students. A judge ruled the lawsuit could continue, but didn’t stop the school from using its new method for the fall 2021 class. The school dropped its standardized tests, raised the minimum GPA requirement, cut a $100 application fee, and expanded its class size.
In June, Thomas Jefferson announced the results: The proportion of economically disadvantaged students rocketed from less than 1 percent of the 2020 freshman class to a quarter of this fall’s class. As parents had predicted, the proportion of Asian students slipped, from about three quarters of last year’s class to about half of this fall’s freshman class. The proportion of Black and Hispanic students climbed, but so did the proportion of white students, from 18 percent to 22 percent.
Decisions to change admissions requirements have driven fiery debate in Boston, Fairfax, San Francisco, and New York City, which also considered shaking up admission to selective middle and high schools this year. In addition to concerns about discrimination against Asian students, opponents worry the new policies bring in students who are unprepared for the schools’ academic rigor, leading institutions to relax their standards. Asra Nomani, mother of a recent Thomas Jefferson graduate, told the Associated Press last year, “You cannot lower the standards of admission without lowering the standards of the curriculum.”
Parents for and against changes are eager to get their kids into rigorous, successful schools. Yet as Louijeune pointed out, most students will not attend those schools. She called on parents and others to "commit the same emotion and energy" to improving non-elite schools.
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