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.