Judge: 'TJ...is...for Gifted Students'

Parents lose the battle to reinstate the TJ test, but win the argument for merit

Read the decision: Feb. 2, 2021, Judge John M. Tran order

Read the decision to allow standing: Jan. 28, 2021, Judge John M. Tran ruling

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By Asra Q. Nomani

FAIRFAX COUNTY, VA. — Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge John Tran denied a request by 15 local parents to force Fairfax County Public Schools to reinstate race-blind, merit-based admissions tests to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, America’s No. 1 high school, but clearly stood on the side of the parents in their noble defense of gifted education and the value of merit-based admissions.

The decision is a blow to the future of the school as a place that nurtures the area’s top science, technology, engineering and math students, as local educrats replace the test with an essential popularity contest, complete with scoring for students who best match a subjective “Portrait of a Graduate,” complete with race-based quotas and biases for life “experiences.” But hundreds of local parents — most of them immigrant — scored a huge win for America in waging a months-long battle, complete with school board speeches, petitions, letters and direct action protests, in an effort that is not over. They overcame fear of retaliation and cultural traumas of coming from societies where speaking out is punishable by death.

Theirs is a victory for standing up for their belief in the American Dream. The judicial setback just proves that the war for America and its future will be a long one.

Since the killing of George Floyd last May, advocates of the ideology of critical race theory have exploited the tragedy to hijack school boards, school systems and schools themselves with divisive thinking that pits people against each other based on race and attacks the very idea of merit, leading to painful battles like the one that has embroiled the TJ community for months. To pursue a race-based agenda to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students at TJ by slashing the number of Asian students at the school, the local Fairfax County school board and its school officials actually argued that TJ was not a school for gifted students, who typically emerge in the top 2 percentile of peers in IQ and cognitive development.

For reasons of COVID-19 and bureaucracy, the judge, who came to the United States as boy from Vietnam, said race-blind tests to TJ couldn’t be reinstated. Importantly, however, in denying the injunction, Judge Tran declared in a heading in his order, “TJ, a Governor’s School, is a Program for Gifted Students.”

The judge didn’t buy the local school officials new script for TJ and said: “TJ is an Academic-Year Governor's School Program that provides what Defendants credibly describe as an ‘alternate service option’ for gifted students. The debate over whether admission to TJ is restricted solely to students who have been identified as ‘gifted’ is misdirected.”

Here are 5 key conclusions by the judge.

1. TJ is a “school solely for gifted students.”

  • He affirmed an earlier decision “that TJ, as a Governor's School, is a school solely for gifted students. The evidence, as a whole, presented at the hearing does not alter this determination.”

  • The judge scolded Fairfax County Public Schools for denying TJ is a gifted school. “Some may complain that the existence of Governor's Schools promote elitism,” he wrote. “Regardless of such complaints, Defendants' curious insistence that TJ is not a school solely for gifted students continues to be unpersuasive.”

  • He cited documents by Fairfax County Public Schools and the Virginia Department of Education, noting: “TJ is identified under the Fairfax County Public Schools Local Plan for the Gifted. It is regularly reported to the VDOE as a program option that Fairfax provides for gifted students.”

  • “Notably, testing was part of the admissions standard in 2017,” he wrote, “and was found to be an appropriate non-biased measure providing ‘qualitative and quantitative information.’”

  • The judge said: “The Court remains convinced that TJ is a school solely for gifted students as long as it remains a Governor's School.”

2. Merit-based tests are “the equivalent of a blind audition.”

  • He wrote: “From the Court's perspective, there is a value in standardized testing to the extent it provides an impartial and objective platform by which to select competitive candidates. The test scores are the equivalent of a blind audition.”

  • He said: “The argument that some students gain an unfair advantage because they have the means to take advantage of preparatory materials, teachers, and classes goes too far when it leads to the conclusion that to combat inequity, testing must be eliminated.”

  • He noted: “Instead of eliminating standardized testing, educators could redouble their efforts and direct needed resources to increase awareness, exposure, and access to preparatory materials and teachers in underserved school communities. The students in those communities would be better served in learning how to prepare for admission to TJ, and in the process learn the steps for admission to universities who continue to rely, in part, on standardized tests.”

  • Unfortunately, he concluded: “Absent a clear mandate from either the General Assembly or the Board of Education directing the use of standardized testing for admission into a Governor's School or other programs for the gifted, the School Board's decision to eliminate standardized testing does not appear to be subject to reversal under judicial review.”

3. The School Board acted in a “rush to judgment and not a deliberate process.”

  • The judge said: “The conclusion that certain decisions are beyond judicial review does not support Defendants' argument that the School Board's decision to eliminate standardized testing had been reached after much debate and consideration of multiple proposals.”

  • In a reprimand to the Fairfax County School Board, he wrote: “The debate may have been extensive but this lawsuit calls into question the deliberateness and transparency of the decision.”

  • “To suddenly cancel a November test in October suggests a rush to judgement and not a deliberate process,” he wrote. “The testimony describing the devastation of students upon learning of the cancellation was both credible and impactful during the hearing.”

  • The judge said, “Even accepting the rationale that standardized tests unfairly eliminated qualified candidates who had a ‘bad testing day,’ why eliminate the tests altogether? Why not just give test results less weight than what had been previously granted absolute finality? Why not allow students to take the test without making test scores either a precondition for the application process or a deciding factor for admission? The standardized test scores became a barrier to admission because the admissions committee made them a barrier. In approaching a holistic consideration of qualitative and quantitative components in the selection process, why not keep the data offered by standardized testing as a relevant factor?”

  • He called out the school system for its hypocrisy, asking: “Why are standardized test scores reliable measures of a second grader's giftedness or of the giftedness of a transfer student who is a stranger to the school system, but then are decidedly unreliable when deciding whether to admit a student to the school?”

4. New 1.5% quota is ‘arbitrary and capricious.’

  • Fairfax County Public Schools is putting in place a new zip code quota that allows the “top 1.5% of students at every middle school,” automatic entry into TJ, although school board members are sending out confusing and conflicting information on whether that is the top 1.5 percent of all students at a school or the top 1.5 percent of students who qualify for TJ. Either way, Judge Tran slammed the new quota system.

  • He wrote: “The recent proposal of offering a spot at TJ to the top 1.5% of students at every middle school suffers the same arbitrary and capricious flaw as any other quota system. That system creates more questions than answers. For example, what happens to the students who attend schools that attract a large population of gifted students?”

  • He further asked: “How will the quota define who falls within the top 1.5% of a school designed solely for gifted students? What if a middle school has an overabundance of students in the top 1.5% of their class who are uninterested in STEM? Why use a quota system when educational policies that foster diversity are permitted and encouraged, allowing academic institutions to consider the role of locality and personal experience as relevant factors in admissions decisions? Many reasons exist why quotas are controversial and disfavored.”

5. Plaintiffs ‘diligently pursued their claims.’

  • Judge Tran ultimately argued that the timing is not on the side of the plaintiffs, but he wrote, “The delay is not the fault of the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs have diligently pursued their claims. They promptly filed their Complaint and have assembled the evidence needed to present their claims in as favorable a light as the circumstances will allow. The Court further agrees with the plaintiffs' position that the request for a preliminary injunction is appropriately directed to preserve the status quo — defined as the "last uncontested status between the parties which preceded the controversy." 

  • Although the school system officials only used racial objectives as their motivation, the judge accepted the last-minute excuse of COVID-19 by TJ Admissions Director Jeremy Shughart as a reason to deny the injunction. He wrote: “The delay and burden on the school division are significant,” saying, The Court accepted and found credible the statement of TJ's Director of Admission that it would be difficult if not impossible to restore the testing that had been abruptly cancelled in November. When considering the deference accorded to the School Board's operation of the school systems, along with difficulties expressed, the public interest favors the defendants.”

  • The plaintiffs showed convincing proof that admissions tests could be administered immediately but the judge wasn’t convinced.

The judicial battle over the injunction was lost but, in winning key arguments over TJ as a school for gifted students and the defense of tests for race-blind admissions, the brave 15 parents who went to court last week won in our struggle for the American Dream.

Asra Q. Nomani is the mother of a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. She is a cofounder of the Coalition for TJ, which supported the lawsuit to protect merit education at the school. She can be reached at asra@asranomani.com

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