The leadership of the Northern Virginia school district is embarrassed to have a public high school where only 1.7 percent of the students are low-income and only 5 percent are Black or Hispanic. It is an atypical place. In my annual data-collecting since 1996, Jefferson has usually had the highest SAT score average for any U.S. school, public or private.
Fairfax County school administrators have a daring proposal to change the school’s admission system. Yet the details of their plan are not as revealing as an early item, “History of Admissions Changes,” in their Sept. 15 report on Jefferson.
They list six previous attempts at reform: a new outreach specialist position in 2011, a holistic review (that means looking at the whole kid) in 2013, lower minimum semifinalist requirements in 2014, a new problem-solving essay in 2015, cutting back the outreach specialist to a half-time position in 2016 and new admission tests in 2017.
At the bottom of that page, in boldface letters, the district confesses: “These changes have not made a significant impact on the application pool or admitted student demographics.”
Their next attempt is a drastic step. They want to raise the minimum core academic class grade-point average for admittance to Jefferson from 3.0 to 3.5. Then they want to choose the lucky winners in Fairfax County and four other participating districts based not on entrance test results, teacher recommendations and other quality measures — as they did before — but on random lotteries.
This has produced gasps in the Jefferson community. Many people didn’t think education should be run like a church bingo game. Lotteries to pick students are usually employed only by the most popular public charter schools in places like D.C., where many Northern Virginians would never send their children to school. There would be separate Jefferson lotteries in each of five similar regions in Fairfax County and in the other participating districts.
I like the lottery idea. The district’s report shows that if it had been used when this year’s freshman class was chosen, 7 percent of the admittees would have been Black, 8 percent Hispanic and 10.3 percent low-income. That is a big change from the actual admitted class — 1 percent Black, 3 percent Hispanic and 0.6 percent low-income. Hispanics, who make up 27 percent of Fairfax students, would still be underrepresented, as would low-income students, 29 percent. The other districtwide ethnic portions are 40 percent Whites, 20 percent Asians and 10 percent Blacks.
An important factor not mentioned in the report is this: Many smart Fairfax students eligible for Jefferson don’t want to go there. Attending a magnet high school does not enhance your chances of getting into an ultra-selective college. If anything, it hurts, according to a 2001 study of nearly 1.2 million U.S. students by sociologist Paul Attewell. He found less competition for Ivy slots at neighborhood schools than at selective magnets. In Jefferson’s class of 2000, 91 students applied to Harvard. Only 12 got in.
There is no evidence that Jefferson teachers on average are better than those elsewhere in Northern Virginia. Non-magnet schools in that region have a wide array of college-level courses, such as Advanced Placement, and offer them even to ninth-graders. They may not have courses above the AP level, as Jefferson does, but seniors ready for that challenge need only wait a year before they are in colleges happy to accommodate them. Many talented students see no reason to abandon their middle school friends for the Jefferson pressure cooker.
Like many other U.S. public school magnets, Jefferson’s largest ethnic group is Asians. They made up 70 percent of the students admitted to this year’s freshman class. My theory, for which I have no data, is that this is because Asian American parents have a respect for math and science courses and careers far above average for this country. Most U.S. parents want their children to get jobs that they enjoy and will pay the bills. But relatively few see a need for their kids to understand quantum mechanics or Euler’s Identity.
If Northern Virginia high schools not named Jefferson have great courses, and if students with 3.5 GPAs are able to handle the magnet’s demands, why not pick names of smart eighth-graders out of a hat?
Jason Pan, a lawyer who graduated from Jefferson in 2005, told me that he thought more analysis was needed on whether the lottery would select the most motivated and prepared applicants from the pool. I told him that I thought applying showed motivation and that Jefferson teachers could get any student with a 3.5 average up to speed.
Pan said he worried that rushing through reforms might impact what he called the “secret sauce” of Jefferson. It is “a community of overachievers who inspire and support each other in their pursuit of STEM education,” he said.
Maybe so, but the new plan is likely to make the place more welcome to all ethnic groups, which I think is a plus. If it doesn’t work, Jefferson can try something else, as it has before.
No change that renders the school less selective will please people who think an institution’s value is demonstrated by how few people get in. They might consider the possibility that a better measure is the percentage of students who want be there. Jefferson will rank very high on that scale no matter what admission system the county School Board approves.