by Marianne K. Burke, Ph.D. and Alan J. Lewitus, Ph.D., parents of a TJHSST graduate
We disagree with Asra Q. Nomani’s and Erin Wilcox’s opinion letter that was published in the Washington Post on July 2, 2021,1 where they claimed that the recent changes to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) admissions process will result in a reduction in the merit and potential performance of students entering the prestigious school. Nomani and Wilcox’s assumption that the standardized test is the best way to evaluate merit is antiquated. Instead, the clear bias inherent in standardized tests used for admissions has been exposed,,: and economic bias is one of the strongest factors influencing discrepancies in standardized test scores, at least in part because test preparation opportunities are often too expensive for low-income families. The new admissions process at TJHSST is dramatically more equitable for Fairfax County students.
We disagree with Nomani and Wilcox’s statement that the new admissions process was intended to purge Asian students at TJHSST. In fact, the new way of evaluating applicants is intended to be, and is in fact, race- and gender-blind. The biggest changes to the process, besides no longer requiring the standardized test, is that all middle schools in Fairfax County are now able to send their top students to TJHSST, including those underserved schools with disadvantaged students. Also, because there is now no application fee, low-income students can participate.
It is not surprising that, with the changes made, the student body will more closely, but not perfectly, reflect the ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of Fairfax County. The biggest success resulting from the new admissions process is that more students from low-income families are part of the incoming class (2021-2022): the proportion of economically disadvantaged students increased from 0.62% to 25.09%. Also, even with the race- and gender-blind admissions process, racial equity improved for the incoming class. In Fairfax County, 20% of the students are Asian and the incoming class is 54% Asian, 38% of the students in the county are white and make up 22% of the incoming class, 27% of county students are Hispanic and the incoming class is 11% Hispanic, and 10% of county students are Black and 7% of incoming students are Black. Admission offered to white, Hispanic and Black students increased, while the proportion of Asian students decreased but still comprised more than half of the incoming student body.
TJHSST is not the only academic institution that has revised how merit and potential performance is evaluated for admissions. In recent years, a growing number of colleges and universities have stopped using standardized testing (SAT and ACT tests) in their admission process (e.g. University of Virginia), because the inherent bias in the tests is being recognized. Also, in 2019, the US News and World Report changed the way that they now rank high schools, to a method that uses a more holistic approach. In fact, in ranking high schools, they have stopped using SAT or ACT scores of graduating seniors. However, they do use performance of students on state administered assessment tests (e.g. Virginia Department of Education Standards of Learning, SOL), but each high school’s state assessment score is compared with scores predicted for a school with the same demographic characteristics. Thus the 25% increase in disadvantaged students at TJHSST is a positive factor in their national ranking.
Over the last few years, there has been a national change toward using more holistic criteria to evaluate student merit and performance, and in ranking high schools, so it is timely that TJHSST employs those revised criteria in their admissions process. These changes are helping to push academic institutions to look at students as more than test scores, and this can help break the cycle of poverty by giving deserving low-income students the ability to attend accelerated high school programs, improving the college and career opportunities of disadvantaged people.
Marianne K. Burke, Ph.D. and Alan J. Lewitus, Ph.D., Fairfax, VA