Alison Collins, the Vice President of the San Francisco Board of Education, has been leading a push to eliminate standardized testing as part of the admissions process at San Francisco’s most prestigious high school. Lowell High School has long been one of the top performing high schools in the country but its student body is majority Asian and white. Collins’ proposal would instead use a lottery system for admissions.
For decades Lowell High School — one of the top-performing public schools in the country — has been considered a point of pride for the district and the city, something of a private school experience at a public school price. But the school has come under fire in recent years for its lack of diversity and instances of racism as the country faces a racial reckoning with the past…
Lowell, with nearly 2,900 students, currently enrolls less than 2% Black students compared with 8% districtwide and less than 12% Latinx students compared with 32% in all schools…
Asian American students represent 51% of enrollment at Lowell, compared to 29% districtwide.
In case there was any doubt where Collins is coming from, back in October she stated during a board meeting that merit and meritocracy were racist systems.
“When we talk about merit, meritocracy and especially meritocracy based on standardized testing. I’m just going to say it, in this day and age we cannot mince words. Those are racist systems,” Collins said.
She added, “If you’re going to say that merit is, like, fair, it’s the antithesis of fair, and it’s the antithesis of just. And so, you can’t use equity. You can’t talk about social justice and then say you want to have a selective school that keeps certain kids out from the neighborhoods that you think are dangerous. That’s all kind of Trumpian language.”
This week, a writer for a San Francisco publication posted a video of Collins’ statement. [Note there is a jump cut in this clip, but I don’t think there’s any mistaking what she’s saying.]
However, many parents I've spoken to disagree with that framing, pointing out that academic achievement shouldn’t be demonized.
Other parents I've heard from say reform is needed but that the process shouldn’t be rushed and that community input is needed. (4/7)
— Sophie Bearman (@stbearman) February 2, 2021
Collins said that on Oct. 13. Three days later on Oct. 16 she posted a similar statement on her personal blog. Here’s a sample of that:
We cannot become an anti-racist education system if we can’t name racism in our system…
Being a “model-minority” is not something to covet or celebrate. Talking about a racial divide isn’t being “divisive”.
It is not Native American folks’ jobs to decolonize our education system. It is not Black and Brown folks’ job to eradicate racism.
A children’s worth should not be defined by grades or test scores. Neither should their “merit” determine their right to receive an excellent education.
Her reference to anti-racism is likely taken from Ibram Kendi’s book which argues people are either racist or anti-racist with nothing in between. The “model minority” reference is to Asian students around the country who are sometimes called the model minority because they excel in academics despite being a relatively small portion of the overall population. Asians are overrepresented at competitive colleges like Harvard and at competitive high schools like Lowell. This fact upsets woke educators like Alison Collins because it suggests that minorities can succeed in the existing system regardless of race. And if that’s true then the anti-racist project is the wrong solution to the existing problem.
The last line I’ve quote above is particularly interesting and not just because of the typo. I would agree that the “worth” of children is not defined by grades and test scores. But the idea of meritocracy is that merit is a measure of consistent effort and hard work. Getting straight A’s doesn’t just happen. It requires a lot of time and study on the part of the student. So students who have put in that work have academic merit. They’ve demonstrated a willingness and ability to get the most out an education. Students who don’t do that work do not have as much academic merit.
It will be interesting to see how this argument plays out. Some colleges are already moving in this direction. The UC system in California is no longer requiring SAT scores for admission for similar reasons. But what about grades? Collins would like to get rid of those as well, at least at Lowell. Should kids who barely graduated and frequently skipped class in high school be given an equal chance to be admitted at UCLA as those who worked their butts off and took AP and honors classes?
I’m pretty sure what Collins would say. If meritocracy is racist then judging students on grades or test scores has to end. Make admission to UC Berkeley a lottery where every high school graduate has an equal chance. And really, shouldn’t Yale, Princeton and Harvard do the same? Like Lowell high school, they also admit a disproportionate number of Asian students. It’s not equitable.
The result of this mindset, if applied broadly, will be a lot of marginal students who muddle through Berkeley and a lot of truly outstanding students who don’t get in to any UC school at all. This strikes me as a very stupid way to allocate scarce resources but it seems to be where we’re heading.
But here’s the worst part of this, the part that I don’t think Alison Collins has thought through at all. If this new approach becomes widespread, how many years will it take before students realize there’s no point in pursuing academic merit. If higher grades are both pointless and tantamount to racism, who could be for higher grades? Might as well take it easy in high school and hope your number comes up in the lottery. At least then we’ll have equity.