Lowell High Plaintiffs Want It Both Ways 

            San Francisco Chronicle Op Ed 
	        December 8, 1994

                Norman Matloff 

Controversy has again arisen over the issue of admissions 
to San Francisco's prestigious Lowell High School. The 
Chinese-American Democratic Club has brought a lawsuit 
against Lowell's 40 percent enrollment cap for students of 
Chinese descent. The club is correct in its assertion that 
current Lowell admissions policy is artificial and unfair. 
Yet the club's insistence that admissions be based on 
``merit'' is based on questionable assumptions and is also 
a bit hypocritical. 

The Lowell policy was set by a 1983 judicial consent decree, 
which stated that no racial group could exceed 40 percent 
enrollment in specialized schools such as Lowell. Nine 
``races'' were defined, one of which consisted of students 
of Chinese ancestry. 

This itself is preposterous. Why must Asians be divided by 
subgroups, distinguishing for example between Chinese and 
Koreans? And on the other hand, why lump together American- 
and foreign-born Chinese, ignoring their cultural differences? 

These artificial distinctions have resulted in artificial 
admissions criteria. For example, Chinese applicants must 
score 62 or better on a 69-point scale, while other Asians 
can get by with a score of 58, and so on. 

Yet there are serious problems with the club's call for 
merit-based admissions. First, the club's right to the 
moral high ground is shaky at best. The club seems to 
happily accept San Francisco's minority business enterprise 
law, which replaces merit with race in the awarding of city 
contracts; Chinese-owned businesses benefit greatly from 
this. The club can't have it both ways. 

Second, the grades-and-test- score composite on which 
admissions are based is of only limited accuracy in 
predicting performance, and any other numerical alternative 
would suffer from the same problem. Thus it does not make 
sense to admit one applicant simply because he or she has a 
score, say five points higher than another. 

Yet even that consideration misses the most important point 
-- just what should make an applicant ``deserving'' of 
admission to Lowell?   If we magically knew that applicant 
X would end up with a Lowell grade-point average 0.2 higher 
(on the traditional four-point scale) than applicant Y, 
would it be clear that X should get priority in admission 
over Y?   

I often ask students at highly selective universities, such 
as Cal and Stanford, whether they take advantage of the 
schools' special virtues. Do they make use of the 
world-class library? Do they make it a point to enroll in 
courses taught by Nobel laureates? 

The answers are almost invariably no. On the contrary, most 
students admit that they simply want the prestigious name 
that the school offers. With that, they too lose their 
claims to the admissions moral high ground. 

The case of Lowell is even murkier. Its principal, Paul 
Cheng, says that one of the main factors behind the fervent 
desires of parents to get their kids into Lowell is the 
school's wide variety of advanced placement courses. These 
prepare students to take national advanced placement 
examinations which, if passed, grant college credit. The 
attraction of this, Cheng points out, is parental savings 
in college tuition dollars. In that case, maybe admissions 
priority should be given to students from poorer families, 
or to students intending to study at expensive colleges.   
Such a suggestion is of course intended to be facetious. 
Yet it does illustrate that merit is an ill-defined concept 
with ill-defined social goals. 

Numerically defined merit should be used as an admissions 
criterion for only one reason, to weed out students who 
would clearly be ``out of their league'' in courses of 
Lowell's level of rigor. 

After narrowing the applicant pool in this manner, though, 
scores should be ignored, and admissions done by random 
selection. This would be simple, fair and race-blind.  It 
would also yield diversity in the student body, thus 
achieving the goal of the consent decree.  

Norman Matloff teaches at the University of California at Davis,
where he formerly served as Chair of the Affirmative Action 
Committee.  He has been active in the Chinese community for 
many years.