TJ Admissions Policy Criticized
By S. Mitra Kalita and Christina A. Samuels
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page B01
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology relies too heavily on an admissions test and should use additional factors in selecting students, according to a commission created to explore ways to open the process to more minorities.
The admissions test at the highly selective magnet school in Fairfax County is weighted to account for 80 percent of an application, while a student's grade point average provides 20 percent. Those two factors alone whittle the applicant pool to 800, an arbitrary number based on the number of students who applied to the school in its first year. This year, more than 2,600 students applied.
Admissions officials look at other factors -- which might include teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities and essays -- only after the pool is narrowed.
The commission of educators and admissions officers at top high schools and universities suggested that examining test scores along with the additional application materials would create a more well-rounded and diverse student body.
Thomas Jefferson is trying to attract more blacks and Hispanics, but the commission report -- which described minority enrollment as "strikingly low" -- said its members tried to look at ways to improve the student body overall.
"It's not about advantaging any one group," said Andrew Flagel, director of admissions for George Mason University and a committee member. "It's about finding the most qualified students."
The panel is composed of officials from around the country, including the admissions deans at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University and the University of Virginia. The committee also suggested distributing the test booklet to all middle schools and making it available on the school's Web site, providing more training to admissions officials and increasing the number of students who are accepted to "semifinalist" status beyond 800.
School Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) said the suggestions would bring Fairfax in line with admissions procedures at other highly ranked schools.
"They talked about this being a sea change for Fairfax, but not for anywhere else," Gibson said. "There are things that you can't measure with an aptitude test. Are we saying we're so much better at identifying non-minority applicants that it squeezed out the minority applicants?"
Of the 450 students admitted to Thomas Jefferson for the fall, 245 are white, 143 are Asian, 30 are multiracial, 11 are black, 10 are Hispanic, one is Native American and 10 listed "other" on their applications.
Parents, who have watched and weighed in on the debate over admissions at the school, reacted cautiously yesterday, saying they want to see how the recommendations would be implemented.
"My first gut reaction was, 'Oh, they're going to do affirmative action just like the colleges,' " said Jeanine Martin, a Vienna mother of two sons, one of whom graduated from Jefferson. Martin, who also sits on the Gifted and Talented Advisory Council and the Superintendent's Community Advisory Council, is an opponent of affirmative action at Jefferson. "Colleges say we look at it all holistically. We let in who we want to let in. I think that's what the panel has recommended -- that TJ do it the way the colleges do it."
Jesse Jones, a black parent who had three children graduate from Thomas Jefferson, said he supports giving the admissions test less weight. The school also should launch an outreach effort to tell potential students what the magnet school has to offer, he said.
But he said the School Board has considered changes before, with little effect. "The community fought those policies," he said. "They seem to believe if a minority goes to the school, they're chosen just because they're a minority."
A community meeting on the recommendations will be held June 21.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company