Dear Extra Credit:

Why have the minutes of the independent blue ribbon commission to review current admission practices at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and the commission members not been made available for public review and questioning?

Ryan Comes

Jefferson Class of 2004,

Carnegie Mellon University student

This is a timely question because the Fairfax County School Board could vote as soon as tonight on the commission's recommendations. The 8 p.m. meeting is at Jackson Middle School, 3020 Gallows Rd., Falls Church.

Jefferson is probably the highest-performing public high school in the country, in part because of its strict admissions procedures. Its admissions committee selects about 400 ninth-graders from only the top 800 applicants as determined by tests and grades, under a formula in which the entrance test counts four times as much as middle school grades. Minorities on average do not test well, and the current Jefferson student body is only 1.1 percent black and 2.4 percent Hispanic.

The board asked the commission to recommend a way to make the student body more diverse while maintaining its academic excellence.

The minutes of the commission's meetings have not been made public because it didn't take any minutes. The meetings were open to the public. The commission members, 11 experts from universities and competitive public high schools as far away as San Francisco, were not made available for public review and questioning because the Fairfax school officials who set up the panel did not think that should be part of its job.

Instead, the School Board asked the commission to hear public testimony and gather information, then come up with a plan that the board would have to approve or discard. Since the commission's report was released, the School Board has held public workshops and received more than 1,000 e-mails. Whatever the board members decide on the issue, as elected officials they are going to have to listen to a great deal of fervent and well-argued criticism. They have rarely had to decide anything this hot.

The commission made several recommendations, including these highlighted on the school district Web site (www.fcps.k12.va.us/news/tjhsst.htm):

1. Keep the current admissions standards and criteria.

2. Review every application instead of just those with the top 800 test scores and grades.

3. Look at teacher recommendations, student essays and student backgrounds as well as scores and grades.

4. Increase the number of application readers and train them to spot important traits not obvious from grades and test scores.

5. Encourage more minority and low-income students to prepare for and apply to Jefferson.

The school district staff not only asked for comment but also invited everyone to participate in a Web site survey. More than 1,200 responded. All the recommendations above won majorities except No. 2, which lost 53 percent to 37 percent. The closest wins were No. 3, with a 53 percent approval to 36 percent not approving, and No. 4, 52 percent to 32 percent.

Some said the recommendations promoted racism. Others called them reasonable and equitable. This will not be an easy decision for the board.

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