Opinion: New TJ Admissions Proposal Won’t Fix Underlying Diversity Issues

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) was ranked #1 high school in the country by U.S. News this year. Located in Alexandria, Virginia as part of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), the 12th largest school system in the U.S., TJ is designated a magnet STEM high school, and students are accepted through a rigorous admissions process. TJ’s mission is “to provide students with a challenging learning environment focused on math, science, and technology, to inspire joy at the prospect of discovery, and to foster a culture of innovation based on ethical behavior and the shared interests of humanity.”

Fairfax County Superintendent Scott Brabrand and Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni have been leading a task force to change how the TJ admissions process is conducted in an attempt to remedy diversity issues. On Tuesday, they set forth a new proposal which would drastically change how TJ admissions will work, removing multiple facets of the original completely merit based admissions process and instead offering a merit lottery system.

Diversity at TJ and in Its Admissions Process

TJ has long been renowned for being challenging, stressful, and selective, with a 17% acceptance rate for the class of 2023. In recent years, the school has been the subject of controversy due to the lack of diversity in its student body, particularly the underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students, even though the admissions process is supposedly “race-blind.”

For the class of 2024, the enrollment data shows that only 3.3% of accepted students were Hispanic, and the number of Black students was too small to report, meaning less than 10 Black students were admitted. The entire student body only consists of 1.72% Black students and 2.60% Hispanic students.

TJ’s admissions process is merit based and consists of two main rounds with prerequisites of a 3.0 middle school GPA and enrollment in Algebra 1 Honors or higher. The first round consists of an entrance exam with English, science, and math tests, based on which the applicants are ranked by percentiles. The second round consists of two teacher recommendations, the applicant’s transcript, a student information sheet (SIS), and a problem-solving essay. The application also contains a $100 application fee, but the fee can be waived if a student is on reduced meals or free meals. Families who earn less than 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, while families who earn between 130-185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced meals. In 2019, the income eligibility range was $16,000 – $80,000, depending on how many people were in each family.

A point of controversy surrounding the aforementioned admissions exam is the business of TJ prep. All around Northern Virginia, students pay thousands of dollars to be tutored by experienced teachers, and practice for years, hoping to get past the first round of the TJ test. These businesses are specifically oriented to TJ and some TJ prep businesses charge upwards of $1,000 for classes. For example, a popular TJ prep business, Prime Learning Center, offers 3-hour weekly sessions for 4 months, with a price tag of $1,300. Many argue that these TJ prep businesses are one root of the inequity in TJ admissions because many students who have gained admission into TJ have completed TJ prep. Consequently, this places low-income students, who can’t afford these prep classes, at a severe disadvantage.

Virginia School System’s Proposal

The proposed plan would remove the admissions test, the teacher recommendations, and the problem-solving essay. It also increases the middle school GPA requirement to 3.5 and maintains the SIS requirement. In the current admissions process, the SIS and problem solving essay is administered in a 2 hour time period. The proposal also takes away the $100 application fee entirely.

The main part of this plan is a regional-based “merit lottery” system. TJ is unique in that it takes students from counties surrounding FCPS and private schools, and is designated as one of 23 Governor’s schools in Virginia, meaning it is specially supported by the Virginia Board of Education rather than local boards. A more typical magnet school can be found nearby in Loudoun County. The Academy of Sciences doesn’t have a four year full day program like TJ and only accepts students from Loudoun County, offering classes every other day. The task force’s plan guarantees a set number of seats from each of the surrounding counties. For example, Loudoun County is guaranteed 62 seats.

In the plan, FCPS is divided into 5 regions, with 70 seats for each region, and after students have completed the requirements, they are put into the lottery. Rachel Carson Middle School, located in an affluent area of Herndon, is informally known as a “feeder school” for TJ because it usually has many students who apply and receive admission offers. In the class of 2022, 78 or how many total students were admitted from Carson, and this cap system hopes to ensure greater regional diversity at TJ.

The main alleged benefit of this regional cap is that it would ensure that the student body is truly representative of FCPS, instead of many students coming from one affluent school. According to the proposal, if the class of 2024 was selected using a lottery system, there would be a 6% increase in accepted Black students, a 5% increase of hispanic students, 3% increase in English Language learners, and 10% increase in economically disadvantaged students.

Although the regional cap may increase diversity on paper it contradicts the merit based admissions which TJ is based on and it may be ineffective at achieving its ultimate goal of diversity. Take Rachel Carson Middle School, the “feeder,” for example. For the class of 2023, 55 students were accepted. Let’s say 70 qualified to make it under the new plan. They will cut out people who qualify but are worse than other applicants. This means that small middle schools in and around the Carson area with less applicants (who may be even more qualified) have much fewer representatives, and less access to spots, because of the regional cap.

The plan also proposes removing the $100 application fee, although students on free or reduced meals could request a waiver. Although with the current admissions system I (Achraf) personally received an application fee waiver for being economically disadvantaged, there is no disputing the positive effects of this change in terms of breaking barriers to entry. Removing the application fee aids individuals who were just barely making more than the free and reduced lunch income cutoff. If I (Achraf) had applied this year I wouldn’t have obtained a fee waiver, due to our family now making just a couple hundred dollars above the free and reduced lunch income cutoff. I would make the argument that we are still as economically disadvantaged as we were before, but the removal of eligibility for the free and reduced lunch program tells a different story.

This Proposal Fails To Address Inequities Present Before The Admissions Process

This proposal would do a disservice to the hardworking students of Virginia, by attempting to remove an extenuating factor of unequal academic opportunity’s role in the admissions process, by adding an even more impactful and impossible to break down barrier—random chance. If passed, this proposal would result in student mismatch, higher dropout rates, and overall less successful outcomes for these disadvantaged minority groups, all while undermining merit. Therefore we find it to be imperative that this proposal is rejected in favor of allowing the TJ community more say in the creation of a new admissions plan.

It has not been made clear in the proposal why teacher recommendations and the problem solving essay is being removed from the admissions process. There is no basis for removing them, in particular, because they act as equalizers of economic opportunity, as the objectively least “preppable” portions of the admissions process. These are a lens into an individual’s critical thinking skills, showing how a student works in the classroom as well as how adaptable a student would be to a rigorous environment like TJ. Other factors of the current admissions process, such as standardized tests, can be an unfair determinant of a student’s s aptitudes in those areas due to vast disparities in backgrounds and past opportunities; however, a teacher’s personal experience with a student, or an assessment of their innate creativity, leaves little to no room for privileged individuals to game the system.

TJ was built upon bringing students together with a shared passion for the sciences. A lottery system discredits the achievements of many worthy individuals who will be given the short end

of the stick in a randomized process. We recognize the current disparities in opportunity that particularly disadvantage POC and low-income students. However, any efforts to reform this issue should keep the TJ admissions process as a merit-based system. At the same time, the best solution would work to fix underlying issues that these underprivileged groups face before sitting down to take the admissions test.

FCPS should invest money in low-income students and schools around the county and provide targeted STEM outreach to marginalized groups from a young age. This means funding STEM programs at schools around the county, and making sure all students are aware about opportunities like TJ, especially at middle schools who send less students to TJ.

Apart from strikingly low admission rates of certain minorities, an equally prevalent problem is that their rates of application are disproportionately low in the first place. For the class of 2024, only about 160 Black students applied, while over 1,000 Asian students applied.

The Advanced Academic Program (AAP) is also a major perpetrator of these racial inequities. In 2nd grade all FCPS students take the COGAT pattern recognition exam, and if they receive a good score they are placed in separate AAP classes until the end of 8th grade. Students who aren’t in the AAP program are placed in General Education (GE) classes. In 2020, about 38.6% of AAP students are white while just 9% are Black.

Students in the AAP program are exposed to more academic rigor, engaging curriculums, and an opportunity to relocate to an AAP Level IV center school, which receives more funding and resources, while GE students are often left behind. According to FCPS, the AAP Level IV program is designed to meet the needs of advanced learners with a strong emphasis on higher level thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making, but it doesn’t seem to meet the needs of disadvantaged minority students.

One of the major factors in determining a student’s eligibility for the AAP program is the COGAT exam, on which Black and Hispanic children perform 10.9 and 12.5 points worse (out of 160 total points) than white children, respectively. These disparities can’t just be caused by socio-economic status (SES) or other explanatory variables; even after controlling for SES, standardized test scores, and gender, African Americans students were still found to be half as likely to be determined as gifted — clear racial bias caused by systemic racism. This is especially concerning because AAP has long been viewed as a gateway to admission to TJ. Based on the class of 2021 admissions, seven out of the eight middle schools that sent more than 10 kids to TJ also functioned as full-time Level IV AAP centers.

Another issue is disproportionate knowledge of the appeals process for AAP, which permits parents to apply for AAP later, even if they weren’t accepted in 2nd grade. Of the 1,737 second-graders admitted through the appeals process, only 50 (less than 3%) were Black or Hispanic. Again, this follows the trend of these minority groups having unequal access to resources pre-TJ, since these aforementioned Level IV centers get more funding and use a more challenging curriculum than non-Level IV centers.

FCPS should utilize existing programs, such as the Young Scholars Initiative, which is dedicated to “identifying and nurturing advanced academic potential in students from historically underrepresented populations,” to pursue targeted outreach towards minority families and educate them about the appeals process. Diversity is not just a statistic that can be solved with a lottery, and addressing the root issue of racial inequality in FCPS education will be much more impactful.

In order for Qarni’s proposal to come into effect, the FCPS school board has to vote on it. Students can voice their concerns directly by speaking at school board meetings. Michael Fatemi is a TJ junior who formed a coalition of students intending to address their concerns about the proposal to the school board. “If we focus on the core issues, and the principle that everyone should have equal opportunity in education, TJ will naturally start to reflect the talent in Fairfax County,” he said.

Through Teen Lenses: What is your opinion on the recent proposal to change the TJ admissions process? Do you believe this is the optimal way to combat diversity issues at TJ?

“I believe that the recent proposal is a very surface-level fix for the diversity issue at TJ and that it will not only be ineffective but lead to a host of other issues within the school itself. I believe the diversity issue is an indicator of a lack of equal opportunity, and that with equal opportunity, diversity will rise. Therefore, the optimal way to combat diversity issues is to provide access to resources, not by pulling some down, but pushing others up. With equal opportunity, the talent pool(being no longer limited to certain groups), and as a result the TJ admissions should be more rigorous and more exclusive, selecting only the best of the best. This lottery system fails to increase opportunity for anyone, and instead artificially inflates the underrepresented populations at TJ.” Leon Jia, 16, Junior at TJ, Chantilly, VA
“I think the fact that they were willing to make such a radical thing is the main thing they did right. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same results. The thing about this proposal is that it is not set in stone, rather a negotiation point. It makes me happy that they are willing to make such a drastic change. As for what I wish it would improve; I wish there was more of an effort to find the truly gifted students that need a place like TJ. There are some students that are born with raw giftedness and talent, and while that number is small, it makes me sad that we might be ignoring those students. It’s the same way kids with special needs have special classes. There’s the opposite end of the spectrum. The rest of us tend to fall in the middle and don’t really need TJ to do well. But also yes I wish it was more holistic or had more room to identify passion as a criteria to get into the pool.” Didi Elsad, 17, Senior at TJ, Alexandria, VA
“I think that TJ chose the option that logistically makes the most sense for them as of now. The lottery system is the only way that we can ensure 100% fairness when the admissions process occurs. Do I think that TJ is doing enough to combat the problem at hand? No. Do I think that because of this, we should completely scratch the idea of a lottery system? Also no. Making the admissions process into a lottery is a short term solution, however I do agree with people’s arguments that we need to be focusing on those that are underprivileged. In my opinion, the best way that we can combat diversity issues at TJ is by having both solutions! We can have this lottery system (which prevents any inherent bias in the admissions process) AND we can have a reallocation of funds towards helping underprivileged children. This not only helps to create a quick fix for the next year’s admissions, but it also starts the process for helping to fix the discrepancy between wealth classes in the TJ student body.” Erin Tran, 16, Junior at TJ, Chantilly, VA
“I appreciate the FCPS School Board and VA Govt’s effort to increase diversity at TJ. However, I believe real change does not start by changing the admissions process. Many families begin preparing their children for the TJ Admissions test from a very young age, while others don’t have the resources to prepare for the test as well as their counterparts are able to. One of the problems is that some racial and socioeconomic minorities don’t feel like they belong at TJ. This past year, I tutored for an organization called LIFT. I asked one of the girls I was tutoring (who was Hispanic) if she wanted to come to TJ. She said that even though she loved STEM, she didn’t believe she deserved to be at TJ. After all, statistics demonstrate that a significantly less amount of African American and Hispanic students apply to TJ than Asian-American and white students. This is why change must come before the admissions process. There must be more opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about STEM and TJ. I was fortunate to go to an elementary school that had all sorts of ways to get involved in STEM like MathCounts and Science Olympiad, but there are so many elementary schools in Fairfax County that don’t.” Mina Aydin, 15, Sophomore at TJ, Alexandria, VA