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Fairfax School Board Explores Changes to Thomas Jefferson Admissions

Lack of diversity, low math performance prompt members to ask for plan as early as September

The Fairfax County School Board is worried about a lack of diversity and slipping student math performance at (TJHSST), saying this week changes must be made to the school’s rigorous admissions process.

The board convened to discuss what those changes might look like during a two-hour work session Thursday night in front of a packed crowd at FCPS’ Gatehouse Administration Center in Falls Church. Concerned parents, teachers and stakeholders piled into the conference room, with many choosing to stand or sit on the floor.

The school attracts an average of 3,300 or more students every year, applying for 480 available spots.

“Obviously, we have way more competitive applicants than we do spaces to provide,” TJHSST Director of Admissions Tanisha Holland said.

Board members said Thursday night they were worried those who do make it through the door are disproportionately of white or Asian descent and from families with high incomes – and once they're there, anywhere from 15 to 30 percent need significant help with math, according to school officials.

A majority of board members agreed changes needed to be made to the process, though how was left open-ended. They requested staff begin researching different to help improve the math performance of TJHSST students, including researching alternate admissions tests, and how weighting math scores differently might predict math success at the school.

They could bring the issue back to the table as soon as September.

A look at some of Thursday night's discussion:

Diversity

Holland said outreach efforts with organizations such as the Fairfax NAACP and the Multicultural Family Education Center have caused an uptick in applications from black and Latino students.

“I believe it’s due to our outreach efforts that we have been able to increase the number of African-American and Hispanic applicants by 28 percent,” she said.

But the increase in applicants has not translated to the other side: The majority of students admitted to TJHSST are of white and Asian descent, and although the application process was last tweaked between 2004 and 2009, .

There is also a proportionately lower number of students from low-income families who are admitted to TJHSST, Holland said, another issue her office is working to address.

The lack of diversity at the school comes from , said Terri Breeden, of FCPS' Professional Learning and Accountability.

“If we want a more diverse 480, we need a more diverse pool to start with,” she said.

The full effects of their outreach programs might take time to bear fruit, she said.

Declining Math Performance

TJHSST Principal Evan Glazer said that by his estimate, approximately 15 to 30 percent of his students were having difficulties with math.

“As a result those teachers are working their tails off to help those students,” Glazer said.

He said this created a tough situation, because he and his staff didn’t want the focus on the struggling students to overshadow attention on gifted ones.

“As a result, we feel like we’re neglecting some of our shining stars … We don’t want to neglect anybody who walks through our doors because they’re our responsibility," he said.

Board members worried there was too much emphasis on subjective application materials, including two essay questions, two teacher recommendations, and a student information sheet essentially meant to replace an in-person applicant interview.

As it stands, final admissions decisions are driven by two essays – one on real-world problem solving and the other on self-assessment – that count for 25 percent of the application. Student information sheets (de facto interviews) count for 20 percent; teacher recommendations count for 20 percent; math scores from the TJHSST admissions test count for 20 percent; and the applicant’s math and science GPA count for 15 percent.

Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) worried the application was much too subjective, with a lack of focus on student merit and simple academic performance. She suggested making the math score on the admissions test 50 percent of an applicant’s rating.

“I don’t see how that’s resulted in a positive change when we’re talking about remediating math students at the governor’s math school,” she said.

School board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) agreed that diversity at TJHSST needed to be addressed but was more concerned with what she called the school’s “academic decline.”

She agreed that not enough weight was being put on applicant’s math test scores and GPA, and that students might be ill-equipped for the high-level courses they were expected to take at TJHSST.

“One thing that I’ve heard is maybe we’re rushing students into higher level math,” Breeden said.

After the meeting, Tina Hone, a former school board member and founder of the equity-focused organization Coalition of the Silence, said the school board focused too much on math performance.

“The most creative student, the student that actually may be an innovator and make change may not be the linear thinker that most math-whizzes are,” she said. “Maybe you need a different kind of thinker, not just a linear thinker.”

Cindy July 20, 2012 at 01:53 PM
Do not lower the standards of this school to become more diverse, The application process should be to take the best no matter the race or background. If there is that great a need, start another school - a TJ 2 for the next level of students. Once in, if the math level is too low, put the burden on the parents' to get tutors to help their child so the teachers are not overburden. If the kids still can not cut it, go back to their own school. This is a special school for the best of the best - keep it that way.
Laurie Dodd July 20, 2012 at 03:31 PM
I agree that math performance needs to be weighted more heavily in the TJ selection process. As much of the TJ math faculty has noted, the test now given tests math skills at about the sixth grade level - far too low a standard for admission to the top national high school focusing on science and math. Use existing tests that evaluate higher math skills, rather than starting from scratch to create a new test. While diversity should continue to be addressed, the academic skills of those admitted to TJ should be top-notch, so that the school reaches students who are not adequately served at other FCPS high schools.
Chris Banzet July 20, 2012 at 04:42 PM
What I think is absolutely PATHETIC in our society is that we ask to be treated "EQUALLY" yet through ATTENTION to our ethnic status we constantly keep ourselves DIVIDED!! The program should be established with "NO", and I mean "ZERO" information about ethnicity!! In fact, a "FAIR" system would assign an application number to the child's performance, an from there the TOP "480" students should be selected!! To NOT allow the top 480 students the right to join is discrediting and punishing that child based SOLELY on ONE criteria... HERITAGE!! This is SAD and WRONG and if America is ever going to get past prejudice ideology, they need to start by showing GREAT clarity on what discrimination is in the first place!!
Andrew McDevitt July 20, 2012 at 04:52 PM
If there is such parental & student demand for a school like TJ here in NOVA, why do we only have one school like it in the region? Why can't we make our other schools like TJ? Lastly, why can't we have a classics/liberal arts school like TJ to create excellent critical thinkers and creative people who will create innovative and interesting content on the Internet? I hear that many TJ graduates don't even go on to universities to graduate with STEM oriented majors. Thoughts?
Louise Epstein July 20, 2012 at 06:01 PM
Chantilly HS was recently designated a Governors STEM Academy. STEM Academies can be a great option for students who like STEM but don't have the math skills to succeed at TJ, a Governors School, without remediation. As School Board member Ryan McElveen suggested, FCPS also could open a humanities Governors School. This also was recommended many years go by the School Board's Gifted and Talented Advisory Committee, around 2005.
Andrew McDevitt July 21, 2012 at 12:02 PM
Thank you for your infornative comments Louise!
Scott July 21, 2012 at 04:47 PM
I'm a bit confused. Why are there so many students who need remedial math at a leading science and technology magnet school? Seems silly and a waste of resources.
Amelie Krikorian July 21, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Amen to that. Thirty years ago, I applied to an Ivy League college and my father urged me to mark "American Indian" as my race because I am legally eligible to be designated that way. I said "Why? I didn't grow up in a reservation and all I know about my heritage is that it exists. It should not make a difference in whether or not I get in." Well, it did! My father sent in a duplicate application -- copied my essays and everything -- with one difference: my race. As a Caucasian, I didn't get in. As an American Indian, I was offered a scholarship. Saying that my heritage makes a difference for good or for bad is equally prejudicial, IMO.
Amelie Krikorian July 22, 2012 at 01:01 AM
Possibly because they are not taking the top 480 applicants, they are seeking diversity over academics. It's the same reason so many four-year colleges are having to offer remedial math and writing: making diversity as important as academics sometimes has that effect, especially when the decision about who is a minority is simply a legal definition that Congress came up with. Why are Hispanics considered a minority but people from the Middle East are not?
Heather Barber July 22, 2012 at 01:37 PM
Part of the problem (a big part) is that advanced thinking in mathematics is being confused with thinking in advanced mathematics. The FCPS curriculum focuses more on advanced math at an early age rather than advanced thinking within a developmentally appropriate level of math. Until we change our thinking about this, and ultimately our educational practices, nothing will change. When it comes to math instruction, we are doing a huge disservice to learners at all levels.
Sheree Brown-Kaplan July 22, 2012 at 04:51 PM
I agree with you, Heather. However, I think the problem is even bigger than you outlined. The current model of elementary math instruction perpetuates the achievement gap -- which is at the heart of the diversity issue at TJ. Approximately 25% of Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, ESL students and students with disabilities continue to FAIL the 6th grade math SOL. The emphasis in FCPS isn't on ensuring students achieve mastery of fundamental math skills, it's on exposure to concepts. FCPS appears more concerned with what students are taught than what they learn. That approach needs to be turned on its head. Until that happens, I don't hold out much hope that FCPS will produce a more diverse pool of math proficient students who are appropriate for TJ.
Kathy Keith July 22, 2012 at 05:15 PM
WOW, Sheree! I think your comment sums it up: "FCPS appears more concerned with what students are taught than with what they learn." I taught school many years ago. My philosophy--and the prevailing thought at that time-was to "take the students where they are and push/pull them as far as they can go." It seems that the current thought in FCPS--and many other systems-- is to teach the curriculum-and not the students. Kind of like the thinking that in order to teach the child to swim--just throw him into the deep water and he will figure it out. Maybe it works for some--but what happens to those who don't figure it out? Passing the SOL's is not enough to qualify for TJ-but that appears to be the only goal of FCPS. Here's a novel thought: concentrate on teaching math instead of "practicing" constantly for the SOL's, and maybe the students will learn math and -as a by product-pass the test.
John Farrell July 22, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Maybe its time to end the TJ experiment
Heather Barber July 25, 2012 at 12:04 AM
Sheree - I agree with you completely...was just commenting on "15-30 percent of TJ students have trouble with math." To me, it goes without saying that the root of the problem starts way earlier. Hence, my comment that FCPS focuses too much on advanced math at an earlier age - which is precisely what you are saying, I think. FCPS has continued to push the math curriculum down resulting in serious consequences. Student performance/test scores in high school have shown that this approach has not been effective, yet FCPS continues the practice. Not only is the curriculum developmentally inappropriate, students in the Advanced Academics program continue to be taught the grade-above curriculum. Presumably, these are the bulk of the students eventually going on to TJ. So, you see, it is bad enough for those being taught at grade level - but far worse for those being taught above grade level. With the adoption of the common core standards, Montgomery County pulled accelerated math from elementary schools. FCPS should do the same.
Vishnu Devarashetty September 30, 2012 at 06:55 PM
I agree with this statement. Also, what I have seen is that the approach by most of the parents is to complete a task/problem and move on to the next one. If you are able to solve a problem in one way quickly, that is appreciated. But there is not enough time or time made to see what are the alternative ways of solving a particular problem. Sometimes, there may be less efficient way of solving, but more creative way of solving the problem .... Again, I agree it should be advance thinking in student grade level of mathematics to lay ground for really advanced thinking later in life.
Kay Mix December 17, 2012 at 02:40 AM
As a current TJ student, I feel the need to clear up the talk of "remedial math". The lowest level math course taught at the school is Geometry (freshman taking this course would be a year ahead in math). So the lowest level of so-called "remedial math" would amount to a student attending tutoring (most likely during 8th-period which is during school hours) in Geometry which at TJ is taught at least at the honors level and ideally above. Also, I have never experienced a math class at TJ that I perceived as being taught to the bottom group of students. As for the diversity, and other issues associated with the school, I believe they can be better resolved with a clarification/assessment of the school's mission statement. For example, if the school is meant to foster genuine passion for STEM, rather than pure achievement (demonstrated by grades and test scores), then I do not think the admissions should be less subjective, but probably refocused. As mentioned by another commenter, STEM careers/majors are currently by no means a given for a TJ grad. Inspiring passion and fostering achievement in STEM should not result in this, but only allowing applicants who happen to be talented in STEM (may not love it) will not either. I believe TJ is currently functioning as a "gifted" school, which I have enjoyed and benefited from immensely, but to be a STEM school a lot would need to change.
vicki December 27, 2012 at 07:11 PM
I strongly agree not to lower the school standard to make diversity. Whoever qualifies should get into the TJ. I also agree that math/school performance needs to be weighted more than essay parts.
Citizen E April 16, 2013 at 02:31 PM
Why is academic performance declining at TJ? Because the admissions process, and the competitive culture in this area, have created a perverse incentive for families to do anything possible to get their children into the school, whether or not they belong there. Kids are tutored and math-counts-clubbed relentlessly in order to get their test scores up. That may yield short-term individual success (admission to TJ) but results in a class of kids who really may not belong in, or benefit from, a TJ curriculum. Lots of kids who really do belong there either don't get in, or choose not to apply because they're turned off by the mania of people so driven to get in at all cost.

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