Tysons, VA

The Fairfax County School Board will discuss a proposal to overhaul admissions policies for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology at its meeting tonight (Wednesday).

With the goal of improving the diversity of prestigious magnet school, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand has proposed eliminating the standardized test currently used to evaluate applicants, waiving the $100 application fee, and implementing a merit lottery system to allocate seats.

“This process that we shared keeps rigor in the application while eliminating the testing component that squeezed out talent and squeezed out diversity in our system,” Brabrand told the school board at its work session on Oct. 6. “There are other ways beyond a test to be sure that we can support making sure that students can be successful at TJ.”

The school board agreed that the test requirement and application fee should be jettisoned and showed its support for creating a different admissions process for Thomas Jefferson Class of 2025 applicants in a consensus vote.

However, like the Fairfax community more broadly, board members were divided when it came to the question of a merit lottery, asking Brabrand to develop another possible admissions model that does not involve a lottery before its Oct. 8 meeting.

Since it was proposed on Sept. 15, the idea of using a lottery to select students for a school prized for its high academic standards and strong focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has proven contentious.

Concerns that top-performing students would be shut out prompted Brabrand to present a second proposal to the school board on Tuesday, where 100 of the 500 seats available to Fairfax County students would be allocated to the “highest-evaluated” applicants.

The remaining 400 slots would be awarded through a lottery in proportion to student enrollment in each of FCPS’s five regions. Under Brabrand’s original proposal, a merit lottery would have been used to select all 500 seats.

As with the original proposal, students would need to meet residency requirements, maintain a 3.5 grade point average in their core classes, enroll in an Algebra I course, and complete a student portrait sheet with a questionnaire and problem-solving demonstration to be eligible for admission into Thomas Jefferson.

Currently, students must reside in a participating jurisdiction (Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, and Prince William counties as well as Fairfax and Falls Church cities), take Algebra 1 or a higher-level math course, and have a GPA of 3.0 or higher to be eligible.

Applicants also pay an application fee and take an admissions test focused on math, reading, and science. Semi-finalists are further evaluated based on their responses to essay questions, teacher recommendations, and other factors.

The highly competitive process has drawn criticism for perpetuating racial and economic inequities in education by privileging families who can afford to pay for private test preparation services and failing to address potentially biased perceptions of what kinds of students are likely to succeed in Thomas Jefferson’s demanding environment.

Those concerns drew renewed attention in June when FCPS admissions statistics for the magnet school’s class of 2024 showed that too few black students had been accepted for the numbers to be reported.

According to FCPS enrollment data, Thomas Jefferson only had 31 black students in the last academic year. The student body is 71 percent Asian, 19.5 percent white, 2.6 percent Latino or Hispanic, 1.7 percent black, and 4.7 percent students who identify as another ethnicity.

Those numbers have stayed consistent over the past decade, with the combined share of admitted black and Hispanic students at Thomas Jefferson topping out at 9.4 percent in 1998.

In addition, only 2.4 percent of Thomas Jefferson students are economically disadvantaged, as determined by their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals, compared to more than 29 percent of the overall FCPS student population.

The Fairfax County NAACP has thrown its support behind the proposed changes to Thomas Jefferson’s admissions process, saying that a merit lottery could improve admissions for black, Hispanic, and low-income students while reducing the emotional stress tied to an acceptance or rejection.

“The merit lottery will demand that each of our public high schools look at its own STEM offerings, curricular and extracurricular,” the civil rights advocacy group said in a statement. “With this change, we stand to improve the culture of our whole school system.”

While Brabrand says a merit lottery would create more geographic diversity and increase the admittance of underrepresented students, some opponents have argued that it would actually reduce racial diversity at Thomas Jefferson, primarily benefitting white applicants.

The McLean Citizens Association criticized FCPS for the speed with which it introduced the merit lottery proposal in a resolution passed by its executive committee on Oct. 5, saying that the process needs more transparency and community engagement.

“MCA supports efforts to make the student body of TJHSST more ethnically diverse but has considerable concerns with the haste with which this significant revision of the TJHSST admissions process is being considered and the lack of any publicly available data or analysis…to justify any proposed revision,” the executive committee’s resolution said.

Photo via Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Admissions/Facebook

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