The Fairfax County School Board voted last night to create a new admissions policy for the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in an effort to admit more minority students.
In a 10 to 1 vote with one abstention, the board changed the rigid admissions formula for the highly selective school so that hundreds more applicants each year will make the first cut. Then, as they decide who will make the final cut, admissions officers will consider teacher recommendations, applicants' essays and other factors, including race, ethnicity, poverty and cultural experiences.
The old admissions formula relies heavily on a standardized admissions test to cut the initial pool of applicants -- 2,560 last year -- to 800 students. The new policy will remove the 800-student cap in the first cut and will include students who might be poor test-takers but have gotten good grades.
The vote is the latest step in a years-long and often emotional debate over the future of the magnet school, which is considered among the top high schools in the nation. Supporters of the new policy say more flexible admissions criteria will help ensure that bright, promising students who might not test as well as their peers will be considered for admission. Opponents worry that the change could lower the school's standards.
School Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) stressed that a student's admissions test score and grades will remain the dominant factors in determining who gets into Thomas Jefferson. But he said the old system excluded too many good applicants.
"I think what we're talking about is increasing opportunity," Gibson said. "I'm absolutely convinced there are students who could succeed at TJ who didn't have a fair shot at the process."
Thomas Jefferson's admissions policy came under scrutiny about three years ago, when some school officials and community leaders voiced concern that the student body didn't reflect the community's diversity.
This year, 11 black students and 10 Hispanic students were accepted into Thomas Jefferson's freshman class, school officials said. The class has 245 white students and 143 Asian students.
Under the old process, applicants to Thomas Jefferson take a multiple-choice admissions test. Each student is then given an overall rating, with the test score accounting for 80 percent and grade-point average accounting for the other 20 percent. Only the top 800 students make the cut and have their applications -- including their essays and teachers' recommendations -- reviewed by admissions officers.
The new process will include a sliding scale that sets a minimum for both the test score and the grade-point average and gives them variable weight. Most School Board members said they favored a scale that allowed consideration of a student with a 2.67 GPA and a 90 percent test score as well as a student with a 3.67 GPA and a 60 percent test score.
School officials said they expect the new process to add a few hundred students to the semifinalist pool.
School Board member Stephen M. Hunt (At Large) voted against the change, and member Tessie Wilson (Braddock) abstained. Both said they had concerns about the policy.
Louise Epstein, the mother of a Thomas Jefferson junior, said she worries that new freshmen could be less prepared for high-level classes and clubs, creating a less-challenging environment. She said she is concerned that some students with high grades but less rigorous class schedules might beat out B students who are taking advanced classes.
"Maybe TJ will start eliminating advanced courses, and some of the clubs and teams will die for lack of interest," Epstein said. "And it will become a school that meets the social goals of the policy's proponents."
But School Board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) said she is confident that students selected under the new process will be ready for the rigors of Thomas Jefferson.
"We would not want to put children in there who are going to fail," Strauss said. "Some of the most unusual thinkers don't conform to normal boxes and classroom situations."