Fairfax County Public Schools officials on Sept. 23 gave their rationale for proposed admissions-policy changes at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology (TJ), but the public appears unconvinced.
The regional governor’s school, located in the Alexandria area, routinely ranks near the top of U.S. high schools, but has been criticized by some for years because its demographics differ considerably from those of the school system overall.
Current TJ admissions policies require applicants to have at least a 3.0 grade-point average in core classes, be taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade, take an admissions test, provide recommendation letters from teachers, fill out a student-information sheet, pen a problem-solving essay, meet minimum GPA requirements in math and science, and pay a $100 application fee.
Superintendent Scott Brabrand on Sept. 15 recommended that the School Board scrap the admissions test and application fee, enhance the problem-solving essay, boost the core-class GPA requirement to 3.5 and conduct a “merit lottery” of qualified applicants, based on geographical location.
If approved, the new policies would take effect in time for next spring’s TJ application process. The new lottery would apply to students selected for the semifinalist pool.
“We are not lowering the standards of the education at TJ,” said Jeremy Shughart, the school’s admissions director.
The new rules would de-emphasize the admissions test, which screens out some talented applicants, Brabrand said. Some families spend $10,000 to $15,000 per year on test-preparation services to get their children into TJ, he said.
“This not the way to find and spot talent,” he said. “There has to be a better way.”
TJ accepts students from Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties, as well as the city of Falls Church. Some jurisdictions have declined to allow students to apply to TJ out of fear it would lead to a “brain drain” in those localities.
Under the proposed lottery system, FCPS would set aside 350 spaces for Fairfax County students, with 70 qualified applicants randomly selected from each of five geographical areas. Another 62 applicants would be chosen from Loudoun, 68 from Prince William, 18 from Arlington and two from Falls Church. Applicants from private schools would be assigned application pathways based on where they reside.
FCPS by Oct. 9 must submit to the state a report on the demographic makeup of TJ’s student body. TJ’s Class of 2019 was 70 percent Asian, 21 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, 2 percent black and 2 percent those of two or more races.
Under the new merit lottery, those figures would have been 52 percent Asian, 29 percent white, 8 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic and 6 percent those of two or more races, FCPS officials said.
(The school system’s overall population is 37.8 percent white, 26.8 percent Hispanic, 19.5 percent Asian, 9.8 percent black and 5.7 percent two or more races.)
Just 1.2 percent of TJ’s Class of 2019 was made up of economically disadvantaged students and 1 percent were English-language learners. Under the merit lottery, those figures would have been 8.8 and 2.3 percent, respectively.
TJ officials have made numerous changes since 2011 – from creating the position of an outreach specialist (later reduced to half-time) and adding the problem-solving essay to reducing minimum requirements for semifinalists – but these have not had a significant impact either on the applicant pool or the demographics of those admitted.
“We must remember, representation matters,” said Leona Smith Vance, the school system’s director of equity and family engagement. “Who our children see around them, who they learn with, will impact how they become as adults.”
FCPS officials must decide whether the TJ admissions process rewards the right student attributes, Smith Vance said.
“For a long time, we’ve rewarded people that have privilege,” she said. “It will be important, when we’re doing any selection process, that we check our biases . . . We all hold them. It helps us make sense of information, it helps us take shortcuts. We must be conscious of our biases.”
Callers at the Sept. 23 virtual town hall, who did not identify themselves, expressed a gamut of views. One suggested that the demographic disparities needed to be addressed at the elementary- and middle-school levels, not during the TJ admissions process.
Another caller opposed the proposed merit lottery, saying it relied on luck, while a different participant supported the changes, saying they would uncover untapped talent. One who telephoned in said 3.5 GPAs at some schools were worth more than at others.
The School Board is slated to decide Oct. 8 on the final TJ admissions proposal. If the board rules in favor, FCPS officials will develop the revised admission process in the fall and winter, begin accepting applications in December and January and implement the merit lottery in February and March.
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