This is Part II of a series reporting on San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School as it returns to merit-based admissions.
In June of this year I reported on the decision of the San Francisco United School District Board which narrowly voted to restore merit based admissions to the elite Lowell High School. The Globe reported extensively on the tumultuous time for the school and the district as lawsuits were threatened and vile accusations of racism were hurled from the various ethnic and racial communities that comprise the district.
After long being viewed as one of the most prominent public high schools in the nation where rigorous testing, essays and topnotch grades were necessary to gain admittance, in October of 2020 the school board voted to change to a lottery form of admissions, citing the difficulties in conducting and securing the necessary testing during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, there were those that alleged that the move was nothing more than an end run to secure the desired diversity balance for the school as Asian and white students disproportionately outnumbered African American and Hispanic students.
Those fears were realized in February of 2021 when the board opted to make the lottery admissions process permanent as they cited a “pervasive systemic racism” and a lack of diversity in the Lowell student body for its decision.
Fairly predictable results ensued. Ugly accusations of racism and reverse racism were levied again. Lawsuits were threatened. And while the numbers of previously underrepresented minorities rose at Lowell, academic performance deteriorated for the once elite institution with a threefold increase in failing grades. The crescendo came when three members of the San Francisco United District Board of Education were convincingly dismissed after a recall election in February of this year. Among other issues, the decision to subjugate merit to diversity at Lowell was cited as reason for their ouster.
In the wake of the recall election, the school board voted by the slimmest 4-3 margin to scrap the lottery system and return to a merit system of admissions where grades, test scores and essays would once again be the primary criteria for acceptance to Lowell High School. The merit system was to return for the incoming class in the Fall of 2023.
Of relevance, the issue was evidently a factor in the recent Nov. 8 elections with three board members who voted to restore merit admissions achieving victory at the polls.
And while continued and expected debate occurs centered around diversity and equity, the school district prepares for the necessary testing schedules for perspective Lowell High School students. Seemingly unable to get out of their own way, the district has created yet another imbroglio regarding the schedule for testing. Public school students will be evaluated for admission to the class matriculating in the Fall of 2023 in part on the standardized tests they took as seventh graders last Spring. On the other hand, private school 8th grade students will be evaluated by virtue of a test to be taken in January of 2023.
While perhaps the 8 or 9 month disparity in the timing of the tests for public vs private students appears inherently unfair, that is not the current bone of contention. Prior to moving to the lottery admissions process two years ago, there was always this timing disparity in test administration to public and private school students. What Lowell School faculty and many public-school parents are claiming is that at the time public school 7th grade students were administered their exam earlier this year, the decision to return to merit-based admission at Lowell had not yet been made. By contrast, private school students are now well-aware of the returned importance of admissions testing that will take place in January. Additionally, concerns have been raised that students, faculty and schools in general were still greatly impacted by the numerous effects of the pandemic in the 2021-22 school year—effects that are arguably diminished for the 2022-23 school year.
Accordingly, faculty at Lowell are requesting that all students—both public and private—be allowed to prepare for and then have administered in January, the testing that will be a significant determinant of just who gains acceptance to the prestigious school. Thus far, the district has denied this request citing costs of administering the exam and the logistics of locating and staffing the testing venues.
Laura Dudnick, a spokesperson for the school district said:
“We acknowledge the concerns that the state test was administered to public school students before the Lowell admissions policy was reinstated, and during a year that was greatly impacted by the pandemic. We ask the community for patience as staff carefully review academic performance data to assess how to factor these concerns into the admissions process.”
Instead of administering a brand new exam for public school students, the district is considering implementing a “Covid adjustment” for their test scores to account for what is apparently now acknowledged unfairness in the present process. Public school parents and Lowell faculty are justifiably skeptical.
Rebecca Johnson, Lowell social studies department chair, in a letter co-signed by all Lowell department heads to district officials wrote:
“Many SFUSD students, teachers, and families were told that their state test scores would not be used for anything important. So, to compare our SFUSD students’ performance, as seventh graders with private school students’ performance half-way through eighth grade will perpetuate the exact inequity and unfairness that as a school district we are trying to disrupt.”
So at least up until this juncture, the San Francisco United School District, by voting to restore merit admissions for Lowell, finally got it right. They chose a return to the storied excellence of this elite institution over the mediocrity that the lottery-based system risked and ultimately brought—even when that lottery system yielded a greater diversity in race and ethnicity among the student body.
And for those that were pleased with that tumultuous decision—individuals who champion equality in opportunity over equality in result, we should demand of the SFUSD to provide such an opportunity for both public and private school aspirants to Lowell High School by offering entrance testing for all in January regardless of the logistics and corresponding cost.
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