In 2020, one of the nation's best public high schools abruptly changed its admissions policy from merit-based to a lottery system. According to district data, when academic ability was no longer considered, the admitted students ended up with significantly worse grades—and the school tanked in national rankings.
San Francisco's Lowell High school has long been regarded as one of the best public high schools in the nation. Historically, admission to the school was gained through a complex, merit-based system, wherein most students were admitted based on middle school GPA and test scores. However, in 2020, San Francisco Board of Education members voted to temporarily make admissions into the school lottery-based for the 2021–22 school year, citing COVID-related barriers to grades and test scores, as well as diversity concerns. The school board then voted in February 2021 to make the admissions change permanent.
Following a contentious debate, the school board finally voted in June of this year to return to merit-based admissions for the foreseeable future. However, the decline in academic performance from Lowell's lottery-admitted freshman class shows the steep consequences of discarding academic ability in order to meet diversity goals.
Last May, the San Francisco Chronicle released data showing a dramatic decline in student academic performance among Lowell's ninth-graders—the only grade attending the school who had been admitted by lottery. Almost a quarter of Lowell ninth-graders received a D or F grade in fall 2021, a threefold increase from the 7.7 percent and 7.9 percent receiving such grades in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
The fact that "half of our student body new to in-person instruction at the high school level and absences among students/staff for COVID all explain this dip in performance," Joe Ryan Dominguez, Lowell's principal, told the Chronicle. "It is important not to insinuate a cause on such a sensitive topic at the risk of shaming our students and teachers who have worked very hard in a difficult year."
However, grades 10 through 12 at Lowell showed only mild declines in performance, indicating that the problem is much more pronounced among lottery admits. The Lowell, Lowell High School's student paper, conducted a survey that found that 77 percent of teachers "believe the freshmen class is performing worse academically compared to previous years." Unsurprisingly, students admitted based on chance are less likely to perform as well as classmates who gained admission based on merit.
"I have three times as many students as usual failing—instead of one or two, I have three to six. I have some students who have done no work the whole first grading period," Mark Wenning, a biology teacher at Lowell told The New Yorker. "I don't think some of these students would be doing well at any high school, which makes me wonder why they wanted to come to Lowell."
Under Lowell High School's merit-based admissions process, 70 percent of seats at the school are distributed based on applicants' middle school GPA and test scores. Fifteen percent of seats are distributed based on GPA, a minimum test score, and assessment by a committee from their middle school. The final 15 percent of seats is reserved for those attending "underrepresented" public and private middle schools. These students are admitted based on their GPA and statements from their school principals.
While this system consistently created a student body that gained acceptance to elite colleges and achieved top test scores, it also created one that was noticeably less diverse than other, less-selective high schools. According to the San Francisco Examiner, in 2019 more than 50 percent of the student population was Asian, 17 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, and less than 2 percent black. In contrast, the San Francisco Unified School District as a whole is 35 percent Asian, 15 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent black.
Attempts to adjust the merit-based system to gain more black and Hispanic students occurred as recently as 2018. But when the school board voted in October 2020 to switch to a lottery system, controversy erupted among families and students.
"I've been working very hard to get good grades to have a chance to get into Lowell," said one middle school student during an October 2020 school board meeting. "I feel like my rights are being violated."
"If your motivation is defined by an acceptance into a school, you clearly don't value education and learning," said Jessi Yu, Lowell's student body president, during the meeting. "I think this resolution is a huge stepping stone for achieving the equity that Lowell and SFUSD have been looking for."
When the school board voted to make the change permanent in February 2021, it cited the "ongoing, systemic racism at Lowell High School" as the primary motivation.
In addition to declining student grades, Lowell has also suffered in national high school rankings. In 2022, Lowell was ranked the 82nd best public high school by U.S. News and World Report (which publishes yearly rankings of U.S. high schools)—down 28 spots from 2019, and down 14 spots from 2020.
The decline in student performance at Lowell High School is a cautionary tale, showing what happens when merit is sacrificed in favor of diversity. Yes, diversity is good. But discarding merit and casting it as "elitist" allows public school leaders to avoid tackling hard questions about why merit-based systems—systems that judge individual achievement, not immutable characteristics—lead to low racial diversity at specialized high schools.
Rather than doing the hard work of examining how public schools fail poor and minority students, leaving them disproportionately ill-equipped to gain admission to selective high schools, education officials in San Francisco discard merit and disguise the much larger issue of the failure of government schools.
Merit-based admission to schools like Lowell High School has been highly successful at providing incredible opportunities to talented students regardless of their families' resources. While Lowell's return to merit should be celebrated, we should not soon forget the lessons taught by its decline under a lottery system.