Exam School Choice, #14: But BLA was my first choice!

The LetterOn Friday, the Parent Imperfect received a number of messages from people who had received their exam school assignment letters from the Boston Public Schools. Their children had taken a private school admissions test that does not correspond to the BPS curriculum, and based on those test results and their grades in Grades 5 & 6, they were offered admission to one of the city’s exam schools.

Being who I am, I tend to hear from people who chose the nation’s oldest public school for their sixth grader, and got their first choice. Their doubts about this choice are returning and they are wondering if they can still opt for their child to go to one of the other exam schools. They want me to say that BLS will be fine for their child…as if I know.

This year, one of the most common questions came from people (four…this is not a huge sample size) who had chosen BLA as their first choice, but had actually received their second choice…Boston Latin School. One wanted to know if I thought that the BPS had just put her child into BLS because of her high score, regardless of their first choice, and the other three asked what I thought they should do, given that they had already decided that they didn’t want their child (boys, in each of these cases) to go to the nation’s oldest.

Since BLA accepts fewer students for seventh grade  (about 150 fewer, I think), it is not hard to figure out how this happens. Susie’s test scores and grades mean that she is ranked #340 for BLA, but that school is only accepting 332 children this year (these are made-up numbers). Susie, unfortunately, doesn’t get into BLA. The computer then goes to Susie’s second choice, BLS. It turns out that, at that point in the process, BLS has only filled 469 of the 534 spots it has for this year, so Susie becomes the 470th student assigned to BLS. She is admitted to BLS (her second choice) when some students ranked lower than Susie, who made BLS their first choice, won’t get it. Susie’s parents then have a decision to make.

Latin AcademyI’m sure that this has always happened, but I’m going to go out on a limb (with no data other than my own anecdotes) and say that more students with relatively high test scores and grades are making BLA or the O’Bryant their first choice each year. Gradually, this idea that BLS is “the only high school worth going to in the city” is going away. This is a very good change. There are still people who start choosing among private schools if their child doesn’t get into BLS, but I sense that the number of these folks is dwindling. I believe that more of the higher scoring students (not to be confused with “better” students) are still making BLS their first choice, and, eventually, attending that school, but the numbers are changing. “Sumus primi” remains the BLS motto, but that doesn’t mean what it once did.

If this shift is, indeed, taking place, it means something different for each school. For BLS, it would mean more academic diversity in the school (not necessarily more of any other sort of diversity). There may actually be more students at the school who have a hard time adapting to the academic expectations and social pressures of the school. The systems that exist at the school to support these students (peer tutoring, Saturday Success School, extra help from teachers, etc.) will be under increasing stress to meet increasing demand.

So what should Susie’s parents do? They went through this painstaking process of looking at the schools and deciding that BLA, as a more diverse school with a noticeably more supportive culture for students not in the top 25% of their class, was best for Susie. Now, her assignment for 7th grade is the nation’s oldest.

I don’t know what Susie’s parents should do, but there are a few things that I do that may affect such a decision:

1. Each of the three exam schools has much to recommend it. Parents have carefully ranked their preferences among the schools, based on their sense of the kind of environment that will work best for their child. That said, a lot of students who don’t get their first choice do quite well in the school to which they are assigned. I always suggest that people look closely at the school where their child has been placed, before assuming that a non-BPS alternative is the only option.

2. How one places in the exam school derby is not predictive of how they will do in any particular school environment. Our two children were not all that different in terms of test scores or elementary school grades, but their experiences at BLS have been totally different. The organizational skills, personality and learning style of the child seem to be much more predictive of success at BLS than where one places on the exam sorting list. Gender also matters, as I continue to be told that boys are the most challenged demographic group at the school, in terms of academics. This means, for example, that Latinos as a group (a quite small group) fare better at the school than do boys (a quite large group).

Wolfpack3. BLS changes a bit each year, but remains a place that works better for some types of students than others. Just last night, a mother wrote into the BLS Village list-serv to address the question of too much homework. Her son, a ninth grader gets fine grades at the school, while spending 1-2 hours on homework each night. She doesn’t say this, but he is apparently quite happy at the school. Others talk about children who are spending 4-6 hours per day on homework and routinely staying up past 11PM to complete their assignments. This puts an incredible strain on the child (and the family) at a time when the transition to adolescence is putting its own strains on them. We have lived both stories in our own household, and would not wish the strain and conflict on anyone. There have been important changes during the time we have been at BLS in how the school deals with students who struggle with the academic transition. I would not, however, begin to say that the school does everything possible to make it possible for every student to be successful. For example, after a lot of work by a community-wide task force, BLS adopted a “homework policy” mandating that students be assigned roughly 30 minutes of homework in each subject, each evening. There should be no homework over school vacations. Perhaps responding to curricular pressures, teachers routinely violate this policy, and there seems to be no way to hold them accountable to this or any other policy–regular information on student progress, for example–that might help struggling students.

4. Diversity matters and some schools better reflect the diversity of the BPS than others. We believe that economically and socially diverse schools better prepare students, including ours, to be good citizens in the very divided society that they are likely to live in. Of all BPS high schools, the O’Bryant more closely reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the BPS student body than any other school. BLA is less diverse, in this sense, but is still among the more diverse schools in an increasingly segregated set of high schools. BLS is simply off the charts in this regard. Because the student body of the school is so heavily Caucasian and Asian (two groups that, together, make up much less than 25% of the system’s students) BLS is, by quite a bit, the least diverse of the schools in the system. The BPS no longer collects good information about the socioeconomic circumstances of its students, but, based on older information, there is little doubt that BLS is an outlier in this regard, as well. Our children certainly have African-American and Latino friends at BLS, as well as friends from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but their social lives immediately became dramatically less diverse spaces upon entering the BLS school environment. They are certainly not “bad’ kids as a result, but they are becoming different people. We knew that this would likely happen when we chose BLS for our children, so we must have decided that other factors were more important.  What we thought less about was the fact that this change in the social lives of our children would also impact the social life of the entire family.

According to the BPS, over half of the students taking the ISEE exam get into their first choice school. That means that a lot of those families are still facing difficult choices about high school for their child. And then there are all of the students who didn’t opt to take the ISEE, in the first place. With their families, they face an even more daunting set of choices. We wish that everyone in the system was in the position of choosing among quality options, but that is certainly not the case.


Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

17 responses to “Exam School Choice, #14: But BLA was my first choice!

  1. Kathy

    Thanks for writing this Kevin. Our son chose BLS and was accepted for the fall. He is excited but I am concerned as to whether it is a good fit. One option that I always thought we might have was if things don’t work out at BLS, maybe he could transfer to BLA. But given the popularity of BLA, I don’t know if this is an option any longer. Also, I don’t even know how these transfer decisions get made and if there is any policy about them that is public.

    • Congratulations to your son, Kathy. I think that if your son looked at the options and chose BLS, then you are right to give him that opportunity. I have to say that we went in with the same thought that our son could transfer later, but he was not interested, at all, despite his struggles. He made good friends that he really liked, and I think he liked the idea that he was going to the “best” school in the city. On at least two occasions, we said that we were going to make the transfer, but we never followed through on the threat. BLS does not make it easy to transfer, but I believe it is still possible to do, if the situation arises. Good luck!

  2. Alan

    I am disappointed that charter schools are not considered at all as possible alternatives. Why not?

    • Thanks for your question, Alan. If you look at previous posts, you’ll see that I’ve written quite a bit about charters. Some of the families who took the ISEE test for exam school entrance this year will end up in charter schools. It is difficult to know how many. According to the famous CREDO study of Massachusetts charters, however, the “top” decile of public school students (in terms of test scores) is the decile that is least represented in charter schools. Charters attract a lot of students in 5th-9th deciles, but have a hard time luring out the students with the highest scores. This suggests to me that relatively few of the students who gain entrance to the exam school of their choice opt for charters. As you probably know, a fair number of students leave charters in seventh grade to attend one of the exam schools.

      • Alan

        Interesting. What is the “fair” number of 7th graders who leave charters for exam schools each year?

      • Good question! I do not know that number, though I have tried (and will keep trying) to get it. The BPS knows it, but chooses not to make it public. Perhaps it is so much smaller than the number of students moving in the reverse direction that it would be an embarrassment. Some charters, such as the Brooke, use as a selling point that children from their elementary school get into top private schools and Boston Latin. I would love to see a study of what happens to the many students who leave charters each year. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those leave for reasons other than that they have been invited to a BPS exam school, and their options are not the O’Bryant, BLS or BLA.

  3. Kevin, still trying to wrap my mind around this ranking/assignment thing. The explanation you offer (which makes sense to me) would imply that everyone assigned to BLA this year put it down as their first choice. But my kid (who was one of those who put BLA first) thinks there are a couple kids in his class who put BLS first and got assigned to BLA. How can both things be true?

    Jess (mother to Aidan and Elliot)

    • Thanks, Jessica. That’s interesting. If the system works the way I understand it, then both things can’t happen. I have found in the past that kids don’t always know how their parents ranked the schools. There could also be some chicanery afoot, or maybe I’m just misunderstanding the way the system works. I’ll try to find out more.

  4. bobshore

    “the O’Bryant more closely reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the BPS student body than any other school. BLA is less diverse, in this sense, but is still among the more diverse schools in an increasingly segregated set of high schools.”

    I would hope if you and others really thought about that, you’d rethink how you view that. BLA isn’t less diverse – it’s more diverse, because it better reflects the makeup of the city of Boston as a whole. It’s BPS that is less diverse, because it is segregated.

    BPS O’Bryant BLA Boston*
    Hispanic 41% 30% 21% 17%
    Black 34 35 26 45%
    White 14 11 28 32%
    Asian 9 22 22 4%
    *School age children

    • bobshore

      Fixing the table and the right column, was using BPS numbers and the above is “kids not in BPS” not “all school age kids.” So BLA doesn’t represent the city of Boston, but still – BPS’s makeup is not the right benchmark for diversity.

      – – – – – – – BPS – – O’Bryant – – BLA – – – Boston* – – – State
      Hispanic – 41% – – – 30% – – – 21% – – – 34% – – – 18%
      Black – – – – – 34 – – – 35 – – – – 26 – – – – 38% – – – – 9%
      White – – – – – 14 – – – 11 – – – – 28 – – – – 18% – – – – 64%
      Asian – – — – – 9 – – – 22 – – – – 22 – – – – 8% – – – – 6%

    • Thanks for that, Bob. It depends on what you mean by diverse. I think it can be argued either way. BLA more closely reflects the city and the O’Bryant more closely reflect the BPS student body, which I consider to be the more relevant reference. They are both diverse places, and should be congratulated for that diversity.

  5. Patty

    So my son got accepted to BLA after having his heart set on going to BLS (like his mom did) After trying very hard to explain to him that BLA is just as good as BLS, I had to wonder why he did not get accepted, after comparing test scores and GPA’s I’m left to wonder, aside from GPA and test scores what else do they consider for “ranking” each kid? He actually got high 800’s in score and GPA was A- …………..I later found two kids in his class that got accepted to BLS with lower test scores but A as GPA could that really be the difference and why GPA over test scores…… I did reach out by e-mail to someone from BPS who has not reply, I just wonder if you know anything about this or have heard from other parents with the same concern…..or question, thanks

    • Thanks for the question, Patty. I’m sorry if your son is sad about his placement. I can only tell you that I’ve spoken to many people with kids in both schools who are very happy that their son is at BLA. Our son would have been devastated (for about a month) had he gotten into BLA, but I’m convinced he would have had a great experience. That doesn’t help you now, but may, in the future.

      The letter grade counts 50% in the calculation of the ranking. They somehow quantify the GPA and apply it along with the test score to get the ranking. What I have noticed is that some schools have really inflated Grade 5 and 6 grades since the schools started taking those grades into account. Many, many children have A+ averages, which I think is ridiculous. Your son’s A- average (a wonderful average, for any grade) probably put him at a disadvantage against the “inflatees.” I think I can say here that I was shocked when I saw my own son’s GPA on his ranking letter. Let’s say that I think there was a mistake in the calculation of his GPA. I wonder who is checking that the reported GPA actually reflects the student’s certified school performance over the relevant time period. I’d be willing to bet that no one checks.

      The whole system hinges on the assumption that the ISSE score is a proper measure of how a child is likely to do in a BPS exam school, AND the assumption that the GPA really reflects what s/he did for work in Math and ELA in 5th Grade and the first part of 6th. The sorting hat in Harry Potter was a better means of making such choices.

      All that said, your son got into a fine school. If he lets himself enjoy it, he will make great friends and have a wonderful time there.

      • Patty

        Thanks for your reply to my comment……. I did noticed the A+ GPA on a friend’s kid letter (not in the same school as my kid), and thought it weird myself …….but I am also very frustrated with the entire “ranking” system they use as far as AWC is related. Aside from my son not getting into BLS, which by the way, we had a welcome Sixies open house last night at BLA and I think my son will be okay, he seemed to like a little more after actually taking a tour and talking to other students there…… If I had known the GPA carried so much weight I would have kept my child in regular class were most likely he would have gotten an easy “A or A+”, not sure about other schools, but the school he is in now in 6th grade AWC the kids are given two math classes and two English classes, instead of being able to take an elective as the kids from the regular 6th grade class did, (which made no sense to any of us ), this also seems to be a very frustrating decision for parents, it will surely be mine when I have to decide for regular class or AWC for my other child when the time comes. Should grades have the same weight regardless if they are in regular class or in AWC?……… I never thought this would even create so much frustration for me as a parent who has seen my kid and other kids in his class, work so hard to later see them so disappointed that they did not get first choice or any choice at all. I’m so proud of what he got both in GPA and test scores but I wonder deep down if this will have an effect on these kids, some who did not even make it to any of the three schools because they had a B GPA in AWC ? What’s the point?

  6. Annie

    So interesting to read your posts on exam schools. My daughters are 7th graders at BLA this year. It was their first choice, without reservation. Both girls had the rank to go to BLS, but felt BLA was a more welcoming environment. I gave them a lot of credit for bucking the trend, and sticking with their choice while most friends chose BLS.
    My husband and I have been incredibly impressed by the quality of teaching, responsiveness of teachers, rigor of curriculum and approach of molding 7th graders to further develop the skills of effective learners. Many teachers have pursued national board certification, a voluntary, highly reflective process few educators attain.
    I am impressed by the diversity of BLAboth culturally and socioeconomically. I believe it says something about the caliber of teaching and students.
    Regarding the whole process and perception of BLS being the best… I find it incredibly shortsighted. I can’t tell you the number of people who erroneously assume the girls didn’t make the cut for BLS. And the rank process must happen, but is terrible. Kids saying their rank- or lying about it. I told my daughters discussing a rank number only does 2 things- make one person feel better, and the other person feel worse. The “trail a BLS student for a day” perpetuates the BLS myth, and should be done away with, or done at all 3 schools.
    For the parent trying to read into the ranking process, I believe that not all the ISEE reported subject scores are used. As an aside, my daughters had the exact same grades and test scores separated by only a few points, yet their rank was separated by several dozen. Never figured that out.

    • Thanks, Annie, for sharing your thoughts about BLA. They echo many others that I have heard over the years. I don’t sense that the place is a paradise (as evidenced by all of the hub-bub over “rigor” last year), but the school has consciously attempted to create a high-expectations school with a culture that is different from the one at either BLS or the O’Bryant. As they do a better job of communicating this culture to parents, more parents who might have been knee-jerk BLS parents at another moment are taking a serious look at the school.

      I love your point about the rankings. This is a needlessly opaque process that needs to be broken open and “examined.”

  7. Sandy

    How can these be? (see your text quoted below.) BPS makes a big deal now about how you don’t have to play games with school choice forms, and you can rank your choices in your true order of preference. If lower ranked kids are getting into BLS over their higher ranked peers, that would blow that theory out of the water! Plus, it just seems very counterintuitive!

    ˆSince BLA accepts fewer students for seventh grade (about 150 fewer, I think), it is not hard to figure out how this happens. Susie’s test scores and grades mean that she is ranked #340 for BLA, but that school is only accepting 332 children this year (these are made-up numbers). Susie, unfortunately, doesn’t get into BLA. The computer then goes to Susie’s second choice, BLS. It turns out that, at that point in the process, BLS has only filled 469 of the 534 spots it has for this year, so Susie becomes the 470th student assigned to BLS. She is admitted to BLS (her second choice) when some students ranked lower than Susie, who made BLS their first choice, won’t get it.”

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