News & Politics

Thomas Jefferson High School Could Switch to a “Merit Lottery” for Admission

A proposal aims to diversify the elite STEM school by eliminating the admissions test and $100 application fee.

Photograph by VCU Capital News Service, via Flickr.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology needs to change its admissions policy, according to Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent Scott Brabrand. In a proposal he submitted to the county school board on Tuesday, Brabrand shared a vision for a transformed admissions process that he hopes will increase diversity at the competitive high school. The new system would eliminate the admissions test and $100 application fee and introduce a “merit lottery” process.

This proposal comes after a recent outcry from alumni about the demographic breakdown of students in the incoming freshman class of 2024. Fewer than ten Black students were offered admission, a number so low that it wasn’t included in the FCPS news release reporting class statistics. Like many years before, the majority admitted this year are Asian students, who make up 73 percent of the incoming class. But unlike in years past, TJ alums and students spoke out after this announcement to share their painful experiences with racism and demand that the school overhaul its skewed policy.

TJ’s admissions debate goes back decades. Since its founding in 1985, the student population has remained mostly white and Asian students. Although there have been many efforts to increase diversity in the admissions process, those have largely failed to make significant or lasting change. In 2012, the Fairfax chapter of the NAACP was among the groups that filed a complaint alleging that TJ was shutting out Black and Latinx students.

TJ is consistently ranked as a top school in the country and the competition is brutal: This year, the admissions rate was about 19 percent. Parents bend over backwards for their child’s potential admission, moving families across the state to fulfill residency requirements and enrolling their kids in after-school programs to prepare them for the TJ admissions test (with “some starting as early as third grade,” Washingtonian reported in 2017). But this process tends to benefit privileged families in the area, creating a homogenous student population that doesn’t come close to fairly representing the six diverse districts in Northern Virginia that the school serves.

“We believe there has been overreliance upon the current admissions test, which tends to reflect upon the socioeconomic background of test takers or the ability for students to obtain private test preparation instead of students’ true academic potential.” Brabrand said in a news release statement on the proposal. “This can discourage potential candidates from applying or advancing to the pool of semifinalists.”

Some parents are fiercely opposed to the potential changes, including Asra Q. Nomani, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about her concerns that the policy proposals would affect the quality of the school. One change in Brabrand’s vision that could address that issue is the GPA requirement. In the current policy, applicants must have a GPA of 3.0 or above in core classes (like math, science, English, etc.); the new policy would increase that to 3.5.

Depending on how the next few weeks go, the admissions change could be implemented as early as February 2021. The school board is planning to have a virtual town hall for students, parents, and community members on Wednesday, September 23.

Rosa is a senior editor at Bitch Magazine. She’s written for Washingtonian and Smithsonian magazine.