Fairfax School Board Explores Changes to Thomas Jefferson Admissions
Lack of diversity, low math performance prompt members to ask for plan as early as September
The Fairfax County School Board is worried about a lack of diversity and slipping student math performance at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), saying this week changes must be made to the school’s rigorous admissions process.
The board convened to discuss what those changes might look like during a two-hour work session Thursday night in front of a packed crowd at FCPS’ Gatehouse Administration Center in Falls Church. Concerned parents, teachers and stakeholders piled into the conference room, with many choosing to stand or sit on the floor.
The school attracts an average of 3,300 or more students every year, applying for 480 available spots.
“Obviously, we have way more competitive applicants than we do spaces to provide,” TJHSST Director of Admissions Tanisha Holland said.
Board members said Thursday night they were worried those who do make it through the door are disproportionately of white or Asian descent and from families with high incomes – and once they're there, anywhere from 15 to 30 percent need significant help with math, according to school officials.
A majority of board members agreed changes needed to be made to the process, though how was left open-ended. They requested staff begin researching different to help improve the math performance of TJHSST students, including researching alternate admissions tests, and how weighting math scores differently might predict math success at the school.
They could bring the issue back to the table as soon as September.
A look at some of Thursday night's discussion:
Holland said outreach efforts with organizations such as the Fairfax NAACP and the Multicultural Family Education Center have caused an uptick in applications from black and Latino students.
“I believe it’s due to our outreach efforts that we have been able to increase the number of African-American and Hispanic applicants by 28 percent,” she said.
But the increase in applicants has not translated to the other side: The majority of students admitted to TJHSST are of white and Asian descent, and although the application process was last tweaked between 2004 and 2009, that trend hasn’t changed.
There is also a proportionately lower number of students from low-income families who are admitted to TJHSST, Holland said, another issue her office is working to address.
The lack of diversity at the school comes from a lack of diversity in who applies, said Terri Breeden, of FCPS' Professional Learning and Accountability.
“If we want a more diverse 480, we need a more diverse pool to start with,” she said.
The full effects of their outreach programs might take time to bear fruit, she said.
Declining Math Performance
TJHSST Principal Evan Glazer said that by his estimate, approximately 15 to 30 percent of his students were having difficulties with math.
“As a result those teachers are working their tails off to help those students,” Glazer said.
He said this created a tough situation, because he and his staff didn’t want the focus on the struggling students to overshadow attention on gifted ones.
“As a result, we feel like we’re neglecting some of our shining stars … We don’t want to neglect anybody who walks through our doors because they’re our responsibility," he said.
Board members worried there was too much emphasis on subjective application materials, including two essay questions, two teacher recommendations, and a student information sheet essentially meant to replace an in-person applicant interview.
As it stands, final admissions decisions are driven by two essays – one on real-world problem solving and the other on self-assessment – that count for 25 percent of the application. Student information sheets (de facto interviews) count for 20 percent; teacher recommendations count for 20 percent; math scores from the TJHSST admissions test count for 20 percent; and the applicant’s math and science GPA count for 15 percent.
Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) worried the application was much too subjective, with a lack of focus on student merit and simple academic performance. She suggested making the math score on the admissions test 50 percent of an applicant’s rating.
“I don’t see how that’s resulted in a positive change when we’re talking about remediating math students at the governor’s math school,” she said.
School board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) agreed that diversity at TJHSST needed to be addressed but was more concerned with what she called the school’s “academic decline.”
She agreed that not enough weight was being put on applicant’s math test scores and GPA, and that students might be ill-equipped for the high-level courses they were expected to take at TJHSST.
“One thing that I’ve heard is maybe we’re rushing students into higher level math,” Breeden said.
After the meeting, Tina Hone, a former school board member and founder of the equity-focused organization Coalition of the Silence, said the school board focused too much on math performance.
“The most creative student, the student that actually may be an innovator and make change may not be the linear thinker that most math-whizzes are,” she said. “Maybe you need a different kind of thinker, not just a linear thinker.”