TJ Students Oppose Admissions Lottery as 'Not the Solution'

Students at America's No. 1 High School Offer Actual Solutions

By Asra Q. Nomani

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Current students at Thomas Jefferson High School and Science Technology sent a letter to Fairfax County public officials, saying the flawed lottery plan announced earlier this week is “not the solution” to increasing underrepresented communities at the America’s No. 1 high school.

“We know that black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in our school and our community,” the students wrote. “But we believe that the current proposal by legislators and the school board is not the solution.”

Fairfax County Public School board officials would be wise to learn from these students who are some of our country’s best critical thinkers. Instead, they seem dead set on a plan to rush the flawed plan through the bureaucracy and approval at a school board meeting October 8. The opposition by the students, who agree with the need to increase the number of underrepresented students, is a significant blow to the ill-conceived Fairfax County Public Schools plan.

In a four-hour session with the Fairfax County school board, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand submitted the plan to replace TJ’s race-blind, merit-based test with a “merit lottery,” that is more lottery and less “merit,” using only a minimum 3.5 GPA to enter student names into a first-round pool.

The students state, “The TJ admissions process as it stands is inherently race-blind….Therefore, we propose alternative methods that can help TJ become more representative of Fairfax County.”

They add, “Anybody who has a passion for STEM and beyond should have an equal opportunity to come to TJ and learn.” Instead, the new lottery system leaves selection to TJ to random chance.

They note: “The removal of a merit-based testing exam ignores the fact that the education quality across Fairfax County is NOT consistently rigorous, especially in STEM core classes such as Mathematics and Science.”

Community members, parents and students are angry and fast signing a petition protesting the Fairfax County plan, oddly dubbed a “merit lottery.”

Here is the complete letter.


Letter to FCPS about TJHSST Admissions

By TJHSST Students

Original Proposal

Dear FCPS School Board members and Virginia State Legislators,

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is a special place. From the moment we spotted the dome from our buses as they pulled in on the first day of freshman year, TJ was special to each and every one of us. TJ has given us opportunities that no other school could offer, and an environment to grow our passions for learning. For many of us, getting to TJ was hard work. And for most of us, going to TJ is even harder work. TJ students make sacrifices, but it is worth it because there is no other place like TJ.

We are so thankful to have access to all the opportunities that TJ has to offer. We acknowledge our privilege and have been thankful to be given the opportunities along the way to get here. We love TJ, and we want to ensure that everyone in Northern Virginia has access to the same educational opportunities that TJ offers. Anybody who has a passion for STEM and beyond should have an equal opportunity to come to TJ and learn.

When the legislators bring up problems with TJ’s diversity, we say: we know. We know that there is a problem. Not one student in this school denies that the TJ demographic is unrepresentative of the demographic of Northern Virginia. We know that black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in our school and our community. 

But we believe that the current proposal by legislators and the school board is not the solution. The TJ admissions process as it stands is inherently race-blind.  It is a series of math, science, and reading tests combined with personal questions, mainly about the applicant’s passion for STEM, and a short problem-solving essay. None of these assessments has the capacity to judge race. The disadvantage that lower-income and minority students have is created far before an applicant sits down to take the TJ test, and that is the problem we, as a school, as a community, and as a state, need to address.

This letter is coming from the current students of TJHSST, and represents views on the current admissions process along with the newest proposal by the FCPS school board. We’d like the board to acknowledge that there has been quite an influx of change to the administration and admissions system since then, and so opinions of alumni don’t often directly correlate with ours.

Therefore, we propose alternative methods that can help TJ become more representative of Fairfax County.

Concerns with the current proposal

We recognize that in the Class of 2024, there was a significant lack of diversity at TJ. However, we believe that rather than changing the applications process itself, the change should come before the application process, so all students have equal opportunities to prepare for TJ.

The proposed process removes aspects of the TJHSST application process which we believe are fundamental, equitable measures of a student’s success. 

Admissions testing helps to select students who will thrive at TJ.

TJ is a difficult school, there is no doubt about it. The rigor of classes is far beyond that of normal high school classes and requires a strong passion for STEM and educational foundation to do well. The TJ admissions test helps to pick out students who will be able to do well in the classes. The removal of a merit-based testing exam ignores the fact that the education quality across Fairfax County is NOT consistently rigorous, especially in STEM core classes such as Mathematics and Science.  

A merit lottery system mitigates the sense of accomplishment in students who are accepted and generates resentment in those who aren’t.

Randomly selecting a class from a pool creates the perception that the class is not necessarily composed of the most qualified candidates. For those accepted, there is no feeling that their hard work paid off, only that they were lucky. For those rejected, there is a sense of inequity, and they may feel that their spot was “stolen” by someone less qualified. In addition, a merit lottery system has a chance to stigmatize disadvantaged students, insinuating that they were accepted because of chance, not qualifications or effort.

Teacher recommendations and essays are one of the most equitable ways to understand a student beyond their test scores.

Students cannot take a prep class to show their passion for STEM to their teachers; the passion will be apparent to the teachers. Letters of recommendation and essays are also an essential way for students to demonstrate their aspirations and personality represented outside of a quantitative test. Without this representation, students who demonstrate a passion in STEM but score poorly on tests would be underrepresented. 

The proposed process adds a significant amount of random chance that is blind to student merit.

Although the merit lottery system treats all students equally, which is detrimental to the students who are most qualified to attend. The only difference between random chance and our current admissions process is that random chance is blind to merit.Rather than artificially pumping up the diversity within TJ through random chance, we should be seeking to improve the merit of applicants before the application process. This is where a potential solution of improving awareness during middle school would be extremely helpful.

Quotas create a synthetic version of diversity that only looks good on paper.

However, instead of restricting who can join from each region of Northern Virginia, we should be seeking to level the playing field. The reality is, by enforcing strict quotas and “merit lotteries”, some students will come to TJ when they are not ready for it, and some students who deserve to be at TJ would be cut from the opportunity of coming to TJ. Structuring the student body this way either means many more students will drop out of TJ before they graduate, or it means that TJ will have to decrease the level of course work it provides, which not only takes away an essential part of what makes TJ special—its academic rigor and advanced classes not offered in base schools—but also might cause a decrease in the amount of interaction we are able to have with outside companies, both curricularly and financially. We believe that when the preparedness and diversity within the county overlap, diversity within TJ will happen naturally. Instead of forcing awkward quotas, we should improve educational equality throughout the entire county. Students are not quotas, we are people. Diversity is not a number, it is an environment.

Creating a lottery creates an influx of applicants who are not a great fit for TJ.  With any kind of lottery comes people who are simply grasping at straws, and praying for themselves to get lucky. Not only does the system potentially discourage kids from working hard to earn admission, it also may attract applicants who are not fully ready for the rigor or don’t have the skills needed to succeed at TJ, and it could actually end up producing more adverse effects and a more stressful environment for students as a whole.

Notes

The references from “highly-ranked schools” were not similar to TJ, they were charter schools.

In response to the point that teachers may be biased in their teacher recommendations, we would like to bring attention to the point that students can choose which teachers write their recommendations, and that (something about teachers not racist). 

Our proposals

The core principle of our proposals is simple: try to level the playing field for disadvantaged students far earlier in the game. Yes, this proposal requires significant investment in schools that serve disadvantaged students. Yes, it is expensive. Yes, it will take more time than eliminating the admissions standards for TJ. But in the long run, we believe this will be a real solution to TJ’s diversity while maintaining the educational excellence that makes TJ special.

Increase targeted recruitment for TJHSST applicants at all middle schools

Many middle schools barely mention TJHSST applications. In one middle school, the only time they mentioned TJHSST was one time on the morning announcements. We should be encouraging application to TJ, and especially encouraging people to pursue their goals in STEM. Schools which neglect to talk about TJ are doing a disservice to the students who truly have an interest in STEM. To significantly increase awareness of the possibility of applying to TJ, the Fairfax School Board should consider making admission outreach mandatory at all middle schools, and should request that all jurisdictions that send students do so. An especially helpful way of doing this would be having TJ student ambassadors be part of the outreach process, and help encourage middle schoolers, especially those that do not send many students to TJ, to apply. 

Make the test less preppable

While an admissions test is necessary, the current admissions test is flawed. Wealthier TJ applicants often attend private tutoring classes to prepare for the TJ admissions test. By creating a test that measures critical thinking, logic, and creative problem solving over standardized testing skills would help to eliminate the advantage that students who pay for private tutoring have. This was implemented for Class of 2022 admissions with the introduction of the Quant-Q, and we saw noticeable differences in class demographics. 

Offer more opportunities for one-on-one help within public schools

Many students in higher-income neighborhoods have parents who previously went to higher-level education and therefore can help them more with school. Many TJ students learn STEM subjects at a very young age from their parents. Because not everyone’s parents are in STEM, some students who have a passion for STEM will be at a disadvantage because there are less opportunities for one-on-one help. In middle schools particularly, there should be more opportunities for students with their teachers outside of school hours.

Encourage and fund STEM programs in middle and elementary schools with higher populations of disadvantaged students.

Just like with varsity sports, the slots should go to the most qualified students. For TJ, that currently heavily favors those who have the resources to prepare for the test and while you can certainly make the test less prepable, you won’t be able to completely eliminate the advantage that these students have. By funding more programs for students without these resources, you can help ensure that all the students that walk in on test day do so on an equal playing field and offers are given to students who truly have the greatest potential to succeed here.

Eliminate randomness within the application system.

This application system promotes a mindset that no matter how hard you work, you can still get unlucky and not succeed. This mindset is extremely discouraging, and goes against the mission behind TJ. Many times in our lives, we are told: “You will succeed if you have the passion to work hard.” Making the test completely skill-based would be more fair and would encourage  applicants to work hard.

We agree that the application fee should be removed/reduced.

We believe it would be a good way to create equal opportunity among the applicants.

We truly believe that when there is no gap between income and educational opportunity, diversity within the TJ community will flourish naturally. Instead of hastily trying to “fit” in more diversity at TJ, we should be starting from a fundamental level to make education an experience that flows naturally and allows everyone equal opportunity.

Thank you for reading this letter.

Sincerely,

Michael Fatemi (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Armina Rahman (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Elaine Li (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Elliott D. Lee (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Gabriel Witkop (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Joshua Park (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Leon Jia (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Saurav Banerjee (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Joshua Zhang (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Lauren Delwiche (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Yeefay Li (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Rushil Umaretiya (TJHSST Class of 2023)

Caroline Smiltneks (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Nitin Kanchinadam (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Swesik Ramineni (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Supported By:

Adnan Murtaza (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Freddie Briden (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Jack Ebert (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Jason Yi (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Nora Fareeha (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Sharvani Kondapally (TJHSST Class of 2022)

Shristi Nadkarni (TJHSST Class of 2021)