Equity & Diversity

Selective Virginia Public High School to Drop Standardized Admissions Test

By Christina A. Samuels — October 12, 2020 3 min read

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a STEM-focused magnet school in Virginia that is routinely ranked as one of the top schools in the nation, will drop its current requirement for a battery of tests and its $100 application fee in an effort to make the school’s enrollment more diverse.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand had proposed that the school admit most of its incoming freshman by lottery from a pool of academically qualified 8th graders. The students would also have to write an essay and meet a set of “holistic” standards such as “creative and critical thinking” and problem-solving abilities.

However, the school board decided not to take action on that part of Brabrand’s idea, which he called a merit lottery. Instead, the superintendent said he would present a revised admissions plan by November.

Currently, admission to the high school is determined by grades, scores on three standardized tests (the Quant-Q, ACT Aspire Reading, and ACT Aspire Science) 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 talent at Thomas Jefferson currently does not reflect the talent in [Fairfax County Public Schools],” Brabrand said when he introduced his proposal at a Sept. 15 work session.

The issue of admissions to selective high schools had been controversial in many communities. In 2019, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza tried, and failed, to change the admissions process for the city’s selective high schools. Currently, admissions to those schools relies on a single test.

Merit vs. Luck?

Brabrand’s proposal proposal has drawn immediate opposition from parents and students who said that the district was taking merit out of the admissions process and leaving it up to chance. Fairfax County has done a poor job in preparing underrepresented minorities to qualify for admissions to the school, they argued.

Norma Margulies, who is Hispanic, is the mother of one of the 16 Hispanic students in the class of 2024.

“I am okay with getting rid of the [application] fee. I do have some questions with respect with the test. The test has been a wonderful ally of my son,” Margulies said. “It is the only objective way to measure that you belong.”

Her son worked hard to make it into the school and in a lottery, he might not have had an opportunity to attend, she said.

“That is a betrayal of the American Dream. I am not going to leave the future of my son in the hands of luck. You have to work hard, you have to take your tests, and you’re going to succeed,” Margulies said.

Even so, Margulies said that there is a problem that so few Hispanic students even apply to attend the school. Counselors at her son’s middle school warned her that her son might not feel comfortable there. “I had to lobby for him,” she added.

Makya Renée Little, a 2000 graduate of the school and the president of the Thomas Jefferson Alumni Action Group, said she supports both discarding the test and moving to a lottery system.

Instead, everyone would be admitted with the same level of qualifications and luck, said Little, who is Black. And the changes might entice a more diverse set of applicants, she said, rather than students feeling worried that they won’t be accepted at the school.

“To be candid, when I first heard the concept of the merit lottery, I literally flinched,” Little said. “But the more that I sat in the feeling and thought about it ... I warmed up to the idea. Now, in addition to increasing the demographic diversity, you’ve leveled the playing field. You can’t look at me as if I got in because of my color, like I’m some kind of charity case.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.