School & District Management

Can a Lottery Diversify America’s Top High School?

By Christina A. Samuels — October 05, 2020 10 min read
Alex Margulies, a father of one of the 16 Hispanic students admitted in the class of 2024 at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, speaks at a protest against a proposed lottery admissions plan intended to diversify enrollment at the highly selective magnet school.
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After years of efforts to enroll more Black, Hispanic, and low-income students, one of the country’s top-ranked selective high schools is considering its most dramatic change yet: changing from a test-based admissions process to selecting most of its students by lottery among academically qualified 8th graders.

The proposal to change the admissions process for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Va.—“T.J.” to those in the community—reflects a nationwide debate over how best to diversify student enrollments in public schools’ advanced academic programs. The proposed change for Thomas Jefferson has already drawn both strong support and fierce criticism. The school board could vote on the change as early as Oct. 8; if approved, it would go into effect for the next school year.

“The reality today, if we are honestly leading with equity at the center, is that the talent at Thomas Jefferson currently does not reflect the talent in [Fairfax County Public Schools],” said Scott Brabrand, the Fairfax schools superintendent, at a Sept. 15 work session introducing his proposal. “We have applicants who have talent, who have merit, and those applicants are drained out in the semifinalist stage through the use of an admissions test.”

Admission to the school is currently determined by grades, standardized tests, student essays, and teacher recommendations. Fewer than 10 Black students and 16 Hispanic students were among the 486 freshmen in the class of 2024. Overall, about 72 percent of the school’s 1,800 students are Asian, and around 19 percent are white. Approximately 3 percent are Hispanic, and fewer than 2 percent are Black.

In comparison, the district’s overall enrollment is about 38 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian and 10 percent Black. (The majority of the school’s student body comes from Fairfax County, but as a regional program, the school also offers some slots to students in neighboring jurisdictions.)

‘Long Overdue’

The school also has imbalances in other areas; about 60 percent are male; 2 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 29 percent in the district as a whole.

Just a few days before the scheduled vote, Brabrand rolled out a modification of his first proposal. Instead of picking a 500-student freshman class entirely by lottery, all students would go through a holistic review of their applications and the top 100 would be offered seats. The remaining 400 would be chosen by lottery.

“I just think it’s long overdue, and it’s necessary to kind of open it up,” said P. Arnzellique Harrison, who is Black and graduated from the high school in 1998. Harrison is also a board member of T.J. Alumni for Racial Justice. “Just because there’s diverse representation, that doesn’t mean that the quality of the student goes down. That’s a false dichotomy.”


But many families, including the Asian families whose children make up the majority of the school’s enrollment now, feel they’re being targeted by this proposal. They say the school would no longer be picking from the best students who apply, but would instead be relying on chance for selection, if the plan is approved.

Fairfax needs to stop neglecting Black, Hispanic, and low-income students and instead provide them the education they need in the earlier grades to meet the rigorous admissions process, said Asra Q. Nomani, one of the leaders of a group, Coalition For T.J., opposing these changes. Her son is a senior at the high school.

“There’s a failure of education happening in those communities that the school district needs to address,” said Nomani, who is of Indian descent. “Instead, they’ve used T.J. as a scapegoat.”

Glenn Miller, a parent of a junior at the school, said that “every single person who is a member of the two warring coalitions thinks there’s a problem.” The disagreement between the two groups is on what is causing the enrollment disparities.

“The county is blaming Thomas Jefferson High School for the problem, saying the test is biased, it’s ‘systemically racist.’ But at the end of the day, what’s really been happening is that Fairfax has been neglecting some of its middle schools,” said Miller, who is white.

The Larger Conversation

The fight over admissions at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which regularly lands on lists of the best high schools in America, is emblematic of larger struggles with enrolling underrepresented groups in upper-level academic courses. Black, Hispanic, and low-income students are less likely to enroll in other types of rigorous school work, like gifted and Advanced Placement classes. And it’s not for lack of ability: Researchers have found that high-achieving, low-income students lose ground over the course of their schooling, compared to their high-achieving peers from more affluent families.

Any educational institution that uses a test as part of its admissions process is going to see such disparities, because the tests are also measuring the opportunities a child had to learn the material, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, the director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. She is also a past president of the National Association for Gifted Children.

“There’s no pure test of inherent ability,” Olszewski-Kubilius said. That doesn’t mean that tests have no purpose, she said, but that they should be evaluated along with other factors.

When it comes to selective high schools, policymakers have tried different ways of addressing the issue with different levels of success.

For example, in 2010, Chicago scrapped an admissions program for its selective high schools that explicitly took race into account. Now, the city chooses 30 percent of students from a citywide pool, and the remaining 70 percent are drawn evenly from the top students at each of four “socioeconomic tiers” in the city. The tiers are ranked on factors such as median family income, neighborhood school performance, percentage of homeownership, and adult educational attainment. The result is a group of students that is more diverse than is typically seen in selective school populations.

In 2019, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza fought for changes to the admissions process for the city’s selective high schools, which currently relies on a single test. Facing strong opposition, primarily from Asian parents, state lawmakers declined to make any changes in the admissions process.

In Fairfax County, Brabrand does not have to convince state legislators—only the school board. But groups are already mobilizing on each side of the issue.

TJ Alumni for Racial Justice has hired the law firm Arnold & Porter to investigate admissions practices at the school. The firm is also representing Black Lives Matter D.C. in a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the use of tear gas to disperse protesters near the White House earlier this year.

In the meantime, the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has sued New York City over selective school admissions, has sent a stern letter to the county, warning it that any changes explicitly designed to alter the school’s racial makeup would have to meet “the highest standard of judicial scrutiny.”

Building Better Pipelines

Everyone involved in this particular controversy—and in the issue of getting more underrepresented students in advanced courses—says that schools need to do a better job at developing high-potential students.

Among the school-based policies that can help are detracking students, so that all students are offered access to rigorous classwork; removing prerequisites from classes that can serve as barriers to entry; and ensuring that all students enroll in some upper-level course before they graduate, said Kia Franklin, the chief program officer of Equal Opportunity Schools, a Seattle-based organization that partners with schools and districts nationwide to help them identify children of color and low-income children who qualify for but are not enrolled in advanced coursework like AP or International Baccalaureate.

“There are many students who had comparable indicators of success and aptitude that were being left out systematically,” Franklin said. “The only thing we could attribute that to was faulty practices. Those indicators themselves weren’t a wide enough net to capture who could do well.”

Another way to increase the numbers of children ready for advanced coursework is to start early, and to support them throughout school, particularly in the transition from elementary to middle and from middle to high school, said Olszewski-Kubilius.

She pointed to Project Excite, a program designed to improve the number of underrepresented minority children enrolled in STEM courses. Project Excite identified cohorts of high-potential “culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse” children from the Evanston/Skokie district in Illinois when they were in 3rd grade. The program then provided those students more than 600 hours of math and science after school, on weekends, and during the summer through 8th grade. The program later expanded to support participants in high school as well.

Olszewski-Kubilius led a study of outcomes that found Project Excite participants “consistently outperformed their Black, Latino, and low-income peers, and they came close to the performance levels of White, Asian, and non-low-income students. They were more likely to be placed in above-grade-level math courses than their minority peers in 9th grade.” After 14 years, though, the program fell victim to budget cuts, Olszewski-Kubilius said. But it offers a potential model for success.

“In my opinion, the best way to solve this is to create the pipelines before the kids apply,” she said.

That kind of extracurricular enrichment is what distinguishes students who are prepared for Thomas Jefferson, said Hilde Kahn, whose three children attended the school; her youngest graduated in 2017. Kahn, who served for nine years on the board of the school’s private foundation, has written essays for Future Ed and Education Next on the school’s lack of underrepresented minorities.

In her own investigations, she notes that many parents of students at the school provide intensive extracurricular activities to their children starting in elementary school; chalking up the differences in enrollment numbers simply to test prep is too simplistic and inaccurate, she said.

And, Kahn said, it’s also not accurate to say that the county has done nothing to try to support getting more students into advanced coursework; it’s just that it cannot yet match that level of family investment.

“I would love all kids to have free, or very low-cost, access to a preparation academy. That’s what you need if you want to perform at the T.J. level,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s untapped potential out there. I’m not sure that opening the gates at the high school level is going to be a great solution.”

Lottery Approach

Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, another top-performing STEM school in Georgia, admits its student body entirely by lottery. Thomas Jefferson is currently ranked No. 1 among the nation’s high schools by U.S. News and World Report; Gwinnett’s STEM school is ranked No. 12.

Gwinnett’s program is more ethnically and racially diverse than Thomas Jefferson: 48 percent of students are Asian, 22 percent Black, 15 percent white, and 10 percent Hispanic. However, its demographics do not perfectly mirror the Georgia district, which is 33 percent Hispanic, 32 percent Black, 20 percent white, and 11 percent Asian.

One of the few requirements for the Gwinnett school is that students must have a B average in Algebra I in order to apply. That means that freshmen do enter with varying levels of math skill, but there are summer programs and support programs meant to give students a foundation for later coursework, said Steve Flynt, the district’s associate superintendent for school improvement and operations.

“We have students of all ranges when they get in,” Flynt said. “But students that are interested in participating in the program and participate in all of the activities are almost always extremely successful with it.”

Ruth Metzel, a Thomas Jefferson alumna who graduated in 2006 and is also a board member for the racial justice alumni group, said that “the pipeline” is too often used as an excuse not to make any changes.

“I think that’s a false crutch to stand on,” said Metzel, who is white. “This idea that there aren’t Black or Latinx students who can handle T.J.—I just think that’s just so preposterous.”

Coverage of the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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