Lottery Admissions: Disregarding Merit or Providing Equity?

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Imagine Loyola’s admissions process suddenly changing from merit-based admissions to a lottery system. This is now a reality for San Francisco’s Lowell High School, a competitive public magnet school that consistently ranks among California’s top public high schools. In fact, it recently earned fifth place in California’s 2020 rankings, according to usnews.com. As of February 9, 2021, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to change Lowell’s admissions process from merit-based admissions to a simple lottery with the aim of increasing diversity among the student population and removing its alleged racist culture. 

Many in the Bay Area are glad to see another step toward racial justice and believe that this institutional change indicates the further elimination of racially-biased education. The new admissions process also accommodates for COVID-19 complications: the pandemic diminished the value of GPA’s by forcing many schools to convert to pass-fail and prevented proctored standardized testing. 

In a news article found on the Board’s website, Board President Gabrielo Lopez states, “We must recognize the need for a culture shift in our schools and address racism. This resolution comes after years of advocacy from students and community members.”

However, others also see the move as an attack on the earnest efforts of those currently at the school or hoping to gain admission to the once highly selective public school. It can even be viewed as a failure to fully address the issues of racism, a complete contradiction to the original intent. 

This controversial response presents another example of the tension that sometimes exists between equality and equity. Whereas equality promotes fairness by treating everyone similarly, equity does the same by accommodating individuals based on their unique needs. Although the lottery system seems to solve the lack of diversity, it can be argued that it degrades equity by discrediting hard working students who look to attend a competitive institution and diminishes the academic meritocracy that is already established within most schools. 

Admittedly, previous racist incidents at Lowell High School provide further context and need to be addressed. The school has had a history racist incidents, which recently included a racist social media post and racist Zoom activity.

Former San Francisco Unified School District admissions administrator and Lowell alumna Jennie Horn admits, “They’ve been a total failure with the African American students and the Latino students who have gone there. They definitely feel out of place. … Some Lowell teachers tend to be elitists themselves when they teach.” 

Nevertheless, the lottery system may not be an elegant or comprehensive solution for the long-term success of the school district, as it disregards the aspects of academic rigor and forces highly competitive students to seek another option at another school. In fact, the previous merit-based admissions at Lowell still accounted for underprivileged students by considering local area code, housing and income and by admitting one third of the freshman class based on recommendations over test scores and GPA’s. The Board voted without even consulting Lowell’s administrators and alumni beforehand, a hasty action that indicates an overzealous response to the need for remedying racial injustice. 

The new admissions also fail to account for the school’s previously-established culture. Although the new freshman class may increase in diversity, previous classes may view newcomers as undeserving or inferior. Furthermore, the lottery does not mitigate the racial stigmas held by older classes at the school and can effect future tensions.

Lowell alumna Mary Hao says, “Addressing racism is not an on-and-off switch. It requires education, commitment and continuous engagement. Changing the admissions policy may increase racial diversity in the student body, but it will not change long-held beliefs and attitudes about race and who ‘deserves’ to attend Lowell.”

Instead of using an indiscriminate admissions process, Lowell could offer additional assistance to minority applicants to apply focus on equity. Whereas chance-based admissions simply discourage the high academic standards usually needed in college and job applications, Lowell could give additional tutoring to those who truly desire to apply to Lowell, no matter their privilege or race. Similar to Loyola, Lowell could offer to less fortunate students preparation courses for its standardized test.

“If [Lowell] were to be the one academic admissions high school, it should have better programs to prepare those who need extra support academically.” says Horn. 

Hao adds, “I… think that if Lowell seeks to maintain its reputation of high academic rigor, then it will need to tackle issues related to education equity and not assume that all admitted students have had the same educational preparation and opportunities.”

Like many of Loyola’s implementations, Lowell could also provide both its staff and its students with better programs on anti-racism and equity in order to prevent future controversial incidents. 

A lottery admission system offers one answer to a lingering problem, but ultimately it does not provide an ideal solution. Although increasing diversity is justice, forcing students to compete at a lower level is an injustice itself. Instead of lowering the academic standard, the San Francisco Unified School District should work to improve all forms of education by eliminating the racial divide in schooling before students even reach high school. Racial equality can be morally right, but it cannot eclipse other wrongdoings in the process. In a society that stresses unity above all else, administrators must pursue equity, not equality. 

Hao inquires, “Will ‘merit’ only mean grades and exam scores as they always have, or will ‘merit’ also include addressing educational equity?”

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