San Francisco Considering Scrapping Merit-Based Admissions at Elite High School to Promote Diversity

February 3, 2021 Updated: February 3, 2021

The San Francisco Board of Education is working to end the merit-based admissions system at Lowell High School, one of the best-performing public schools in the West Coast, in an effort to address the lack of diversity in its student population.

Lowell is the only school in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) where admissions are determined by the students’ grade point average and admission test scores, similar to how colleges evaluate their applicants. In October 2020, the San Francisco Board of Education temporarily replaced Lowell’s traditional admissions system with a random lottery for the 2021 academic year, citing a shift from letter grading to credit/no credit due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The change in Lowell’s admissions would be made permanent if a new resolution (pdf), introduced by San Francisco school board members on Tuesday, passes.

Lowell’s traditional admissions process, according to the resolution, created a school that “does not reflect the diversity of SFUSD students” and “perpetuates segregation and exclusion.” Recent enrollment data suggests that of Lowell’s 2,871 students, more than 50 percent are Asian, 18 percent are white, 11 percent are Hispanic, and less than 2 percent are black. That compares to the SFUSD’s 52,778 total enrollment of 33 percent Asian, 15 percent white, 28 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent black.

Citing critical race theorist Ibram X. Kendi, who is notorious for arguing standardized tests are designed to prove black students are intellectually inferior, the resolution condemned Lowell’s test-based admissions system for contributing to the “culture of white supremacy” and “racial abuse towards black and Latinx students.”

To solve Lowell’s alleged exclusion of students of color and lack of diversity, the resolution called on the school to adopt the random lottery enrollment system that is used by every other San Francisco public school in the 2021-22 academic school year and beyond.

The proposal comes after the San Francisco school board voted to drop the names of 44 schools that it considered racist, including those named after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Similarly, New York City announced that this spring will be the last time it offers the Gifted and Talented (G&T) exam to preschoolers, as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to ease what he considers a racial disparity.

The G&T program, which offers specialized instruction and enrichment opportunities for young learners deemed exceptional, admits students based on a single, high-stakes entrance exam. The de Blasio administration, over the past two years, has argued that the program’s admissions format unfairly favors affluent white and Asian middle-class families who can afford thousands of dollars on test preparation for their children.