Fairfax school board debates Thomas Jefferson High admissions

A majority of Fairfax County School Board members said Thursday they would favor changing admission policies for the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, addressing a perennial concern about underrepresented minority groups and more recent consternation about a spike in the number of students struggling to meet the school’s rigorous academic demands.

“We seem to have the worst of both worlds, unfortunately,” said Sandy Evans (Mason), speaking before a standing-room-only crowd at the school system’s headquarters in Falls Church. “We’ve got students being admitted now who are not prepared to do the work, and we also have not increased diversity.”

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology senior Flint Song, 16, left, and junior Ashrit Bagali, 16, work with cancerous mouse liver cells during their Biotechnology Summer Research class.

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Seven out of 11 present members said they favored considering making some degree of change as early as this year. Many said some measures — such as middle-school grades and scores on the TJ math admission test — should count for more than they do now, while essays should count for less.

The board will revisit the issue in September.

“People recognize there has to be a change,” said Laura McConnaughey, one of seven TJ math teachers who expressed concerns about students’ performance in an April letter to the board.

Fairfax has tweaked the admissions process several times in recent years, partly in an effort to raise the tiny proportion of poor, black and Latino students. The population of those students has not budged.

But the number of kids needing extra help in math has grown noticeably, teachers and administrators say, and threatens TJ’s ability to maintain courses that challenge the brightest math and science students.

The issue was particularly pronounced among the 2011-12 freshmen class.

“Between 15 and 30 percent of the students are really struggling in math, so as a result, those teachers are working their tail off to help those students,” said TJ Principal Evan Glazer. “As a result, we feel like we’re neglecting some of those shining stars.”

Glazer said there is evidence that the trend began years ago. The number of juniors enrolling in high-level Advanced Placement calculus, for example, has declined for the past five years.

In a written statement to the board, Glazer asked for more staff to address struggling students and more input into the school’s admissions policy.

Each year, about 3,300 students apply to the magnet school, which serves a broad swath of Northern Virginia. About 480 are invited to enroll.

Five factors are used to determine who will be admitted. A student’s score on the math portion of the TJ admission test, plus his middle-school math and science grades, account for 35 percent of the decision. Essays, responses to a short-answer “student information sheet” and teacher recommendations account for the other 65 percent.

Several board members said the percentages need to be shifted to give stellar math students a bigger advantage. Others questioned whether the math test should be more difficult.

There were fewer specific suggestions for addressing the school’s ethnic, racial and socioeconomic disparities — a problem that, Evans noted, begins far before students apply to TJ in eighth grade.

Two former board members known for speaking on behalf of poor and minority children attended Thursday’s meeting: Robert Frye and Tina Hone.

“The flaws that we see and the distortions that we see in TJ admissions are emblematic of far deeper disparities in Fairfax,” Hone said. “And those disparities need to be fixed in kindergarten.”

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