The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. attorney general will probe Thomas Jefferson High admissions, merit awards

“If the law was broken, my office will both protect and vindicate the civil rights of Thomas Jefferson students and their [families],” Virginia Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R) said. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
5 min

Virginia’s top prosecutor said he will launch an investigation into allegations of racial discrimination at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R) announced the probe Wednesday. It followed claims from a group of parents that the school withheld notifications this fall from students whom the National Merit Scholarship Corp. named “commended students,” a distinction given to the nation’s high scorers on standardized tests. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on Tuesday called on Miyares to start an investigation.

Miyares also said his office of civil rights will investigate the nationally ranked high school’s controversial admissions process.

Fairfax County Public Schools has denied deliberately keeping the award information from students and blamed the delay on a “one-time” error. School staff members have since contacted the colleges where commended scholars applied to update their records.

But parents say the delay prevented their students from including the distinction on early-decision college applications, potentially keeping them from competing for opportunities such as scholarships and honors programs. The group of families has also alleged racial bias because students of color make up the majority of Thomas Jefferson’s population.

Youngkin calls for probe of Thomas Jefferson High student awards notification

“To the extent that withholding of any of these awards at Thomas Jefferson High School was based on race, national origin or any other protected status under the Virginia Human Rights Act, that is unlawful,” Miyares said during a news conference. “If the law was broken, my office will both protect and vindicate the civil rights of Thomas Jefferson students and their [families].”

Fairfax County Public Schools did not immediately comment on the investigations, but officials said this week that they will work with Miyares on the award probe. The school system has launched its own independent investigation into the award notification delay.

Miyares also criticized the school’s admissions process, which was adopted in 2020 and includes a “holistic review” system that takes into account factors such as an applicant’s socioeconomic status. The new process also eliminated a difficult entrance test and $100 application fee, and is intended to boost diversity, school officials said.

A group of parents sued — including some of the families most critical of the award notification issue — arguing the new admissions process discriminates against Asian Americans, which school officials have repeatedly denied.

The first class admitted under the new system in June 2021 included more low-income, Black and Hispanic students. The school has historically enrolled single-digit percentages of these demographic groups. The percentage of offers to White students was steady at about 22 percent, but offers to Asian American students dropped from a typical 70 percent to about 55 percent.

Legal challenges to the new admissions system continue, but the Supreme Court said in April that the system can remain in place while the case is decided. Before the court’s stay, Miyares, along with 15 other state attorneys general, joined the parents’ lawsuit against the new admissions policy.

Miyares on Wednesday called the admissions process one that has “undermined the excellence in favor of a system engineered” to achieve the school system’s “preferred balances on the races rather than actual racial equality.”

While campaigning for governor, Youngkin promised to alter the admissions system at Thomas Jefferson. He told The Washington Post in 2021 that he would pressure the magnet STEM school to change its process to one that is “merit-based.” School district officials, meanwhile, have maintained the admissions process is based on merit.

The investigations have splintered the Thomas Jefferson community. Several parents and former students say the group of parents who triggered the investigation does not reflect the views of the entire school.

“What could have been seen as probably an administrative issue … has become a very easy thing to make a lot of people outraged,” said Liana Keesing, who graduated in 2019, referring to claims Thomas Jefferson withheld award information.

Keesing, now a senior at Stanford University, added that many of the parents who accused Thomas Jefferson of withholding award information also backed the admissions policy lawsuit. “I think this has very little to do with this particular issue at hand, which seems administrative more than anything else, and more to do with the debate at TJ about what equity means in a competitive, top-tier academic context.”

Shawnna Yashar, who raised the alarm after her son received his award notification late, welcomes the state’s investigation. Yashar has said Thomas Jefferson administrators told her they wanted to hand out the notifications “discreetly” so students who were not named semifinalists or commended didn’t feel bad about it. School system officials said they could not verify that conversation took place.

Each year about 1.5 million students enter the National Merit Scholarship competition by taking the PSAT/NMSQT, a nationwide standardized test. About a third of the top scorers are named semifinalists, the others are deemed “commended students” and have access to a limited number of scholarships sponsored by businesses and corporations.

High schools are advised to inform students of their status, but there are other ways families can find out if their student is a semifinalist or commended student, including checking test score qualifications on the National Merit Scholarship Corp. website, a spokeswoman said.

Still, Yashar said the information from the scholarship group is difficult to find. “We shouldn’t have to go hunting around for information,” she said.

Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.