Commentary

Thomas Jefferson’s admissions results show equity and merit can go hand in hand

June 28, 2021 12:01 am

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a governor’s school in Alexandria. (Mareta Creations)

By Makya Renée Little

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, currently ranked the No.1 high school in the nation, has released admissions statistics for the Class of 2025. The results are groundbreaking and a model for the nation: Admissions reform increased diversity on almost every metric without compromising the quality of the incoming class.

This year was the first under a newly revised admissions process aiming to increase equity. The Fairfax County School Board voted to abolish the entrance exam, eliminate the application fee, and introduce a more holistic evaluation process. To ensure students were prepared for the rigor of an advanced STEM education at TJ, a minimum GPA, advanced math prerequisite, and “math and/or science” problem solving essay became parts of the process. Now, the results are in: improving equity and maintaining rigorous academic standards go hand in hand.

Historically, wealthy students have been disproportionately more likely to be admitted to America’s most competitive, elite public schools; TJ was no different. Over the past 8 years, the TJ acceptance rate for private school students has increased from 13.8 percent to 27.6 percent, while the admissions rate for public school students has only increased from 15.5 percent to 18.5 percent. In fact, the bar is even higher for the most socioeconomically vulnerable. Students eligible for free and/or reduced price lunch represent less than 2.4 percent of the TJ student body, in contrast to 31 percent of the overall student population in Fairfax County Public Schools.

Thus, the most revolutionary change as a result of the new admissions process came for students from low-income families. Economically disadvantaged students increased from 0.62 percent to 25.09 percent of the incoming class. In more than 30 years of efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion and America’s No. 1 high school, this is a standout success.

Over the past 16 years, the average acceptance rates for Black and Hispanic students were 4.7 and 6.1 percent, respectively, in contrast to a rate of 16.7 percent for all applicants. Moreover, TJ became less representative of the surrounding student population over time. In the Class of 2024, under-represention at TJ relative to students enrolled in Fairfax County Public Schools rose to 83 percent for Black students and 90 percent for Hispanic students. This year, the rate of admissions for Black and Hispanic students increased approximately 6 and 8 percentage points respectively.

Girls have also been underrepresented by at least 10 percent compared to the FCPS student body for 11 of the past 12 years. This year, the proportion of admitted girls increased from 41.8 percent to 46 percent. The progress on racial, ethnic, and gender equity is modest but worth celebrating and building on for future admissions cycles.

Perhaps the most significant factor for TJ admissions became where you live. Over the past eight years, three of the 26 FCPS middle schools contributed 55 percent of the FCPS students admitted to TJ. At the same time, five of the 26 FCPS middle schools contributed less than 1 percent of FCPS students admitted to TJ combined. This year, for the first time, the top 1.5 percent of each eighth grade class within the draw districts who met the admissions qualifications was offered a spot at TJ. If a middle school had fewer than 1.5 percent students who met the qualifications, then only those eligible gained admission and the remaining seats were open to all applicants regardless of region. Now, for the first time in the past 10 years, all Fairfax County Public Schools had students accepted to TJ.

The average GPA for the TJ applicant pool was slightly higher this year than for the past five years. Crucially, the GPA of the admitted class is on par with previous years. In other words, there was no compromise in student qualifications. The true test of whether underrepresented students are provided the support they need to succeed will depend on accepted offers of admission, attrition rates, and student experience at TJ. At the same time, no one can deny the extraordinary academic ability of the incoming class.

I know what this progress means, because I graduated from TJ in 2000. There is no evidence that more privileged students are more intelligent, harder-working, or otherwise more qualified to access extraordinary educational opportunities. Clearly, factors other than merit have been skewing the results. Recent reforms that sought to lower barriers to access without lowering the bar of admissions are clearly working. The TJ Alumni Action Group (TJAAG) — where I serve as president — commends the Fairfax County School Board for their courage to pursue worthwhile admissions reforms. Looking forward, we continue to call for more data and policy analysis so that the admissions process can be improved over time. That’s the least our children, future innovators, and leaders deserve.

Makya Renée Little is an alumna of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, Florida A&M University,and George Mason University. She also holds a certificate in leading diversity, equity and inclusion from Northwestern University and lives in Northern Virginia.

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