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Audio: VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni Argues for Changes in Admissions to Governor’s Schools to Increase Diversity; Says “It will only make these schools better”

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There’s been a lot of debate and discussion recently regarding the issue of admissions to “Governor’s Schools,” particularly the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (“TJ”). If you’re not familiar with “Governor’s Schools,” basically they’re “a collection of regional magnet high schools and summer programs in the Commonwealth of Virginia intended for gifted students…[that] currently serve in their various forms around 1000 gifted students from all parts of the Commonwealth.” Also worth noting (bolding added for emphasis):

  • Begun in 1973 at the behest of Governor Linwood Holton, the first incarnation of the Governor’s School program included summer residential sessions for 400 gifted students from across the Commonwealth.”
  • “Currently, 18 academic-year Governor’s Schools provide students with acceleration and exploration in areas ranging from the arts, to government and international studies, to global economics and technology, and to mathematics, science, and technology.”
  • Most schools specialize in a particular subject, and each serves a single region, only accepting students whose parents or guardians live within a predefined list of nearby cities or counties.”
  • “Two schools, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, also known as “TJHSST”, (founded 1986) in Fairfax County, Virginia and Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies, also known as “MLWGSGIS”, (founded 1991) in Richmond are full-fledged four-year university preparatory programs and two-year programs. The two are considered by many to be among the best public high schools in the country with both schools notably listed in Newsweek’s Annual Public Elite list of high schools. Admission to the two schools is highly sought-after and competitive. In the Northern Virginia region served by TJHSST extensive courses were developed by private companies to help prepare students for the rigorous testing procedure. After public protests that this put poor and minority students at a disadvantage for acceptance, Fairfax County began offering similar free public courses. As the acceptance rate is only about 15%[3] at TJHSST, the school is currently looking to expand from 1600 students to 2000. The MLWGSGIS’s acceptance rate is currently about 8%[4] and enrolls about 700 students.”

Clearly, the issue of admissions diversity at Governor’s Schools like “TJ” isn’t a new one. For instance, see this Washington Post story from 2012, which reported on a “17-page complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education on Monday by the Coalition of The Silence, an advocacy group led by former county School Board member Tina Hone, and the Fairfax chapter of the NAACP…alleg[ing] that black and Latino students, as well as students with disabilities, are being shut out of Thomas Jefferson, or TJ, long before they apply in eighth grade because of Fairfax County Public Schools’ systematic failure to identify them for gifted-education programs that begin in elementary school.”

Also, see this Washingtonian story from 2017, which wrote:

But even as the school prepares kids to solve mind-boggling math, one challenge has flummoxed TJ since its founding: diversity. Despite being in a district that’s 19 percent Asian, 10 percent African-American, and a quarter Latino, its student body is nearly two-thirds Asian, 1.5 percent African-American, and only 2.2 percent Latino. That racial inequity has persisted for nearly 20 years. 

And check out this January 2017 article by State Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax/Prince William), which wrote: “Thomas Jefferson’s population looks nothing like Fairfax County.  It has a Black student population of 1.5% and Hispanic’s represent 2.23% of the school’s population compared to 10% Black and 24% Hispanic in FCPS as a whole. Sen. Surovell added, “I continue to be very disturbed by these trends and I’m open to ideas as to what to do about it because little seems to be changing after five years of complaints.”

So this issue has been percolating for nearly a decade, with little if any change.  Today, though, the issue seems to have gained significantly more urgency, for at least two big reasons here in Virginia: 1) Democrats took back the state legislature in January 2020, giving them control of both the governorship and the General Assembly, and the ability to do something regarding Governor’s Schools’ admissions; and 2) the much-heightened awareness in the country to issues of racial injustice and inequity, particularly after George Floyd’s murder. These two factors seem to be contributing to the strongest push ever to address the dearth of Black and Latinx students at “TJ.”

In late July, one of the leaders on this issue – Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax/Prince William) wrote that “[w]e need more equitable admissions practices in what are called ‘Governor’s Schools’,” and that along those lines, “Governor Ralph Northam appointed me to a task force with about 20 other individuals including State Education Secretary Atif Qarni to examine equity within our Governor’s Schools System.” After explaining the problem and the need for reforms, Sen. Surovell wrote:

There are multiple admissions approaches that could be used. TJHSST currently uses an admissions test and an essay. According to the research, this type of admissions program is the mostly likely of any to favor family wealth over any other admissions factor, like a child’s ability.

Let me be clear: We are not considering a racial quota system. That is unconstitutional.

We will consider recommending alternate admissions processes that cannot be gamed by wealthy or advantaged families such as a lottery system with equitable scoring systems, middle school admissions minimums or caps, offering admission to top students of each middle school and allowing competition for remaining spots or other processes.

We will also consider eliminating Governor’s Schools if they are unable to adopt more equitable admissions policies.

Also, in late July, the Washington Post editorial board opined that the tiny number of Black students admitted to Thomas Jefferson High School “tells you all you need to know about the system’s abject failure to expand educational opportunities to students of color,” and that it constitutes “a stark reminder that the racial inequities that have been the subject of unprecedented national protest are not confined to the criminal justice system.” The WaPo declared that “it’s that it is time to stop glossing over the systemic issues that have disadvantaged black people,” adding that “it is encouraging that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has created a work group to study issues of equity and diversity at Thomas Jefferson and the state’s other governor’s schools.”

Not surprisingly, there’s been some pushback to the talk of reforming “TJ” admissions. For instance, see this Washington Post article from July 2, which reported that “backlash is swirling…from students, graduates and parents who argue that adjusting the admissions process will lower the school’s standards.”  Also, a few weeks ago, the (right-wing) Sun Gazette editorial board wrote – hyperbolically, as they often do – that what Sen. Surovell and others are talking about constitutes and “assault on TJ admissions.” The Sun Gazette further argued that TJ “can be a meritocracy, letting the chips fall where they may, or it can be the playground of those who want to tinker with the standards until they achieve the desired results.” And, it concluded, “every time this has been tried before, parents of fully qualified students – three-quarters of those admitted are of Asian descent – who fear being elbowed out by a ‘woke’ admissions policy have risen up to demolish those attempting to implement it.”  The Fairfax GOP and other Republicans have also jumped on this issue, in exactly the way you’d expect them to…

With that background, Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni was asked about this issue by the Virginia Policy Review this past Tuesday, and had a lot to interesting things to say. See below for audio, as well as highlights (below the audio). And stay tuned, as this issue certainly isn’t going away anytime soon…

  • “It’s a tough challenge…surprisingly students and alumni of the schools are asking for the change – it’s the families who are showing resistance; they’re using the same rhetoric that was used during ‘Massive Resistance’. They get really upset when i say, look, this is what you’re saying, this was what was said in the 1950s…systemic racism…is also a disease…if you’re in denial that it doesn’t exist, then that’s…part of the problem. We’re trying to really have a healthy dialogue about recognizing that we’re all responsible, and we’re all in it together to think through it collectively.”
  • With Governor’s schools – TJ and Maggie Walker – why do you see that there’s such a stark difference in the demographics of the schools and the regions they serve compared to other governor schools?...Our gifted programs are fragmented, that’s one big part of the problem. I’ve asked the State Board of Education in the next two months they’re going to open up our gifted regulations to make sure that they’re equitable and fix them…making sure that we’re strengthening our pipeline, diverting our resources accordingly.”
  • “Going up the chain and looking at these magnet schools…they were intended to be for gifted and talented education, there are students who go to the governor’s schools who are truly gifted, there are students who are academically superior – there’s a big difference, folks conflate the two.”
  • “There is a lot of weight given to achievement testing. So there’s two types of testing…achievement testing…[and] aptitude testing… Achievement testing is what a student has had exposure to, has learned a lot of knowledge, so they’re going to do well on an achievement test. Aptitude tests show the future potential of a student. So even in our gifted programs… coordinators… teachers and the directors are conflating the two…we have to separate the two. Aptitude tests are not being utilized…and they haven’t developed good aptitude testing.”
  • “If you take testing out of the equation, to really understand a student you have to look at the entire profile of a student, look at their life experiences, what are their communication skills, what are their creative and critical thinking skills? And [with] that, you can get a better understanding by actually talking to the teachers who work with the students, third through eighth grade, that’s where gifted programs start…I don’t know why we don’t get those recommendations from teachers and get the entire makeup of a student. Talking to the student directly about their experiences, having them write an essay, submit a video, interviewing them. And the reason standardized testing has been used…by our universities and our schools is because the logistical process is too hard according to them, to really look at the thing holistically, [it] costs money. But…that’s that’s not fair. I mean obviously the system is going to get gamed by those who are well resourced. So we want to decouple that and do this right…The state is giving you a hefty amount, let’s use a certain percentage to take a holistic approach, look at an entire profile of a student. And that’s how we address these inequities, because there are a lot of Black and Latinx and economically disadvantaged students across these regions who are just not getting a fair shot. Again, it’s about that access, having an opportunity to prove yourself, they’re not getting that shot. It will only make these schools better…”
  • All of our elite universities – Harvard, Yale, Berkeley – they’ve moved on from being heavy tested to test-optional, looking at an entire profile. Their rankings have not been impacted. Other countries are taking a more holistic approach to their gifted programs and magnet schools; their rankings are not being impacted. So it’s only going to make TJ and Maggie Walker and our gifted programs in general better if we modernize the way we do our admissions and identify the students who should go there.”
  • “I’m going to draw a sports analogy. When an athlete uses a performance enhancement drug, that’s illegal or is frowned upon. So with the standardized testing and achievement testing approach, if you’re enhancing your performance by getting a lot of extra help – tutoring services and so forth – it changes the dynamic, right, it gives you a complete unfair advantage; not everybody has those opportunities. And that, coupled with the starting line is already different for folks from different economic backgrounds or different racial backgrounds, that really is hurting our education system. And we really have to look at that deeply look at evidence-based practices and models that are working well and and change those models.”
  • “So the change is coming to the Governor’s schools…I hope folks realize that…please embrace, the change is coming, you could be part of the change and help give good advice and have a say, or you can resist and be part of this massive resistance type thing. You know, you can roll the dice on that, but the change is going to happen… because students and alumni want to change, they’re the ones driving the change, they’re the ones who want it, and…that’s why I remain optimistic, because our young people want this change and they’re not going to rest until the change occurs – they’re not going to let me rest or let anybody else rest.”
  • “The policy change is going to occur. I’ve told the localities, you have a head start, we gave them when the governor and the General Assembly put the change for governor schools in the budget language last year…met with the directors and said, look, you have a head start to start developing your diversity goals, start having these conversations in the community, we’ll monitor that. If you can do this on your own, great; if not, the state’s coming and we’re going to make the change.”
  • “About your buy-in question, it’s not just white parents…If you look at it nationally, it’s happening…also with Asian-American parents as well…Because at TJ, the population is 70% Asian. At Maggie Walker, it’s only 25% Asian, but it’s growing…The way we get the buy-in is that we have to be very clear, let’s disaggregate the data, no community is monolithic. The white community is not monolithic, the Asian community is not monolithic. What about the economically disadvantaged whites and AAPIs who are also not getting opportunities or getting shut out of the process? Because there’s an income stratification at these schools, and it’s the really well-resourced families who are benefiting. Why does it happen to be white and Asian? Because that’s where there’s a concentration of wealth occurring…and that’s the big problem in our society is there’s a concentration of wealth and there’s a concentration of poverty. And that’s where it goes back to my original thing is that if we had more mixed-income settings, that’s where…we’ll see a lot of our problems addressed.”
  • “…this is what the data shows. I know a lot of working-class Asian families are not benefiting and they have complained about the process, because they just don’t have the resources to provide the services for their child to gear up for a standardized achievement test, which shows a very limited scope as well…”
  • “We just have generation after generation after generation of built-up systemic racism; it comes in all different forms. We all are well aware of this, and we have to embrace that there’s a problem that exists. And we have to be proactive and all of us address it. It shouldn’t just fall on the shoulders of African Americans to talk about systemic racism that they’re facing – it’s everybody’s responsibility. So when I have conversations with my Asian-American friends, it’s like look, the very freedoms that you enjoy as immigrants or AAPI families, they were done on the sacrifices of a lot of different social justice movements and civil rights movements, generation after generation, that were led by African Americans. And it’s easier for you to assimilate and your experience is very different. So you have to truly understand…what the problem is… it’s race and economics compounded and there’s an intersection of the two. And we have to ask our question, why is it that African Americans and Hispanic…tend to be more economically disadvantaged? That doesn’t mean that there are not affluent and well-resourced Black and Latinx families…But if you look at the Northern Virginia demographics…at Thomas Jefferson for example, only two percent of the students are on free-and-reduced lunch… so economically disadvantaged students according to our definition…The region they serve, about 30 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. So we disaggregated the data by race…the ratio for whites is 90%/10%, so 10% of whites are economically disadvantaged; for the AAPI community it’s 80%/20%; for Blacks it’s 50%/50%; for Hispanics it’s 35%/65%. So we have to ask the question; in Northern Virginia, in Fairfax County that is so well resourced, why is it that 65% of Latinx and 50  of Blacks are economically disadvantaged…Something’s not right…This goes beyond just education, there are issues with affordable housing and wages and so forth.”