Teachers at San Francisco’s Lowell High gave freshman students significantly more D and F grades this past fall, the first semester after the school board eliminated the merit-based admissions it had relied on for decades.
The lower grades, while expected by many, are likely to become part of a fervid debate over Lowell that touches on race, equity and achievement. The grades raise questions about how students — and the school’s teachers and administrators — are adapting to the changes.
Of the 620 students in Lowell’s freshman class, 24.4% received at least one D or F grade during the fall semester, compared with 7.9% of first-year students in fall 2020 and 7.7% in fall 2019, according to internal San Francisco Unified School District figures obtained by The Chronicle.
In total, the number of Lowell ninth graders with a D or F grade tripled from 51 in fall 2020, the first full semester of remote learning, to 152 in 2021. The rise means the figures for that class at Lowell were closer to the numbers at other high schools in the city, district data shows.
The jump coincided with the first year that Lowell admitted its freshman class based primarily on a lottery — as almost all other city high schools do — instead of test scores and grades.
The percentage of Lowell students given low grades in the fall also rose in grades 10 through 12, though the changes were slight. Those classes were admitted under the old merit-based system.
Joe Ryan Dominguez, Lowell High’s principal, told The Chronicle in an email that “there are way too many variables that contributed” to the school’s rise in Ds and Fs.
Despite the increase, Lowell was basically tied with Mission High School for the lowest percentage of ninth graders receiving at least one D or F grade in the fall among the seven public high schools with at least 200 freshman students, according to district data. Including students in all four grade levels, Lowell had the lowest percentage receiving a D or F last semester.
Pressured by the pandemic, the school board approved a fast-tracked switch from merit- to lottery-based admissions at Lowell starting this school year, citing COVID disruptions to the tests and grades that underpin applications to the school. Lowell’s freshman class this year was the most diverse in decades, with more Black and Latino students.
Both before and since the board’s decision, Lowell’s students, parents, educators and alumni have been locked in a debate over how the school should admit its students in the future.
Lowell has long been one of the top performing public schools in the country, whose alumni include prominent figures in politics, entertainment, literature and science. It’s viewed as a high-pressure launch pad to elite colleges and has offered more advanced placement courses than other San Francisco high schools.
Opponents of the merit-based admissions policy argue it was elitist and harmed Black and Latino students, who were underrepresented at Lowell. An imbalance of academic resources at the school, critics say, perpetuates inequities.
Those fighting to restore merit-based admissions have said moving to a lottery harms Asian American students, who are overrepresented at Lowell compared to all SFUSD schools, and ignores the benefits of a competitive school to high-achieving students. The policy change was among the issues that animated voters to recall three school board members this year.
The two sides have also clashed over whether Lowell is subject to a 1990s state law that prohibits the use of academic achievement for admission to regular public schools, but contains an exception for the use of “existing entrance criteria for specialized schools.”
The rise in the number of students receiving at least one D or F grade in the fall at Lowell was not seen across city high schools, according to aggregate data across grades 9-12 provided by the district. The share of freshman grades that were a D or F in reading, math, science and social science classes declined citywide between fall 2019 and 2021.
Both those supporting and opposing merit-based admissions said the grades for Lowell’s freshman class proved their arguments.
“This data suggests that the change to lottery admissions was not in the best interest of SFUSD students,” said Kate Lazarus, president of the Lowell Alumni Association, which is urging the school board to reject lottery-based admissions for the coming application cycle.
Virginia Marshall, former president of the San Francisco Alliance of Black Educators, said the grades are a sign that the district needs to better assist Lowell students so they can succeed and reach their potential. She remains supportive of the lottery-based system.
“I can see that perhaps the grades may not be what they should be, and that means that Lowell needs to do some intervention, particularly to students of color coming in,” Marshall said.
San Francisco schools have long struggled with an achievement gap across racial groups. The data reviewed by The Chronicle did not break down grades for ninth graders by race.
Counting every grade level at Lowell, the percentage of students receiving at least one D or F last fall rose to 12.3%, from 7.3% a year earlier. That uptick was 3.7% to 6.2% for Asian students; 21.9% to 38.7% for Hispanic students; 33.3% to 42.9% for Black students; and 10% to 17.1% for Filipino students. White students remained flat at 5.3%.