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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.”

Louise Epstein July 21, 2012 at 11:53 AM
The letter from the TJ Algebra 2/Trig teachers to the School Board about remediation needs, the opinion editorial from a long-time TJ physics teacher in the Post, the Post editorial, complete data on the results of the admissions process for the Classes of 2009, 2010 and 2011, plus the limited data published by FCPS in its news releases, has been posted at www.fcag.org.
McLparent July 21, 2012 at 12:46 PM
Kids that cannot handle the workload at TJ should be sent back to their neighborhood school. What's the point of being in a gifted and talented program if you've proven that you can't handle the work? Let's not waste tax payer resources on remedial classes at TJ when these kids really belong in general education. The question should be how these kids got into TJ in the first place. It's the admissions process that is flawed, not whether the kids are white, black, asian, or hispanic.
Marty P. Smith July 21, 2012 at 01:45 PM
In a school named TJHS for Science and Technology, math and science together count for only 15% in the admissions process? Could that, just maybe, be the reason that so many students need math remediation once they get to TJ?
Rob Jackson July 21, 2012 at 03:25 PM
FCPS needs to continue to engage in broad outreach throughout the county, including informing elementary school students and parents what TJ offers and demands. We need to get parents thinking about TJ when their children are in second and third grade. Decisions make then can help or hinder students. Also, we probably need a school similar to TJ that focuses on other subjects, including language, economics, and history. A place to start might be a charter high school. Oops! I forgot FCPS doesn't like charter schools.
McLean Mom July 21, 2012 at 07:58 PM
Perhaps FCPS is just too big to be all things to everyone. I too think another option to TJ is needed. I also think FCPS needs more seats at the middle school level for students ready for advanced math. Having transferred here from out of state, I felt that my child was "bullied" into Math 7 because the algebra class was full. I spoke to another parent at orientation who said her child was also bored in Math 7, a child who, like mine, had taken pre-algebra the prior year. TJ also seems like a secret club, where those "in the know" are providing their kids with math tutoring as early as kindergarden so they can get onto the advanced math track in elementary school. I can totally see how kids of lower income hhs, new to the area, or simply oblivious to the inner-workings of TJ admissions are at a disadvantage in the process. What kid, other than from this area, starts building a resume in elementary school?
Judith Levy July 21, 2012 at 08:30 PM
TJ is a magnet school for science and technology, yet math scores only count for 15% of the total admission score, and up to 30% of its students need math tutoring?? What is wrong with this picture? I thought this school was highly selective and accepted only the best and brightest applicants, regardless of income or ethnicity. Makes me question the current admission criteria.
McLparent July 22, 2012 at 01:13 AM
It's misleading to report that low income students are at a disadvantage when it comes to TJ admissions. Many asians are not in the top tier bracket income, but they are selected to attend TJ anyway. Comparing whites to asians in NoVA, there are so many more wealthy whites, but there's a higher percentage of asians than whites that attend TJ.
Darkseid July 22, 2012 at 08:01 AM
Don't forget that "those in the know" also send their kids to TJ exam prep courses as well. My problem with FCPS is that it seems to be pretty much feast or famine when it comes to your school. If your child is identified as gifted, they are separated and put with other gifted children. Then there are the rest of the children...
McLean Mom July 22, 2012 at 12:01 PM
It is so much more complicated than that. Asian children receive information and tutoring through their church at such a young age. It is part of the culture to begin prepping these children at an early age. Yes, low income families can't afford tutoring and prep courses, but it really starts with knowledge of what to do, and that is where the Asian community has it figured out. These kids are taught at such a young age that math and science are important to their success, and they know as early as 1st grade that their goal is to get into TJ. There is a cultural infrastructure built around TJ admissions in the Asian community. While in the white community, the cultural infrastructure is on how to get Junior to make it onto the varsity team. Really, if there was as much emphasis on math as there is on soccer...
McLparent July 22, 2012 at 01:50 PM
First of all, you assume that all asians go to church, and that is flat inaccurate. Secondly, it's not part of any culture to prep kids. It's common sense parenting that kids need direction, not the remote control for the TV. I'm just responding to the article where it states that because both whites and asians are wealthy, and blacks and hispanics aren't, that this is the reason why there are more whites and asians at TJ. It's not just about income. Also, lets not generalize that all white parents want their kids to get on the varsity soccer team. All the wealth built by whites wasn't based on varsity sports or being a professional athlete. Asians have figured out the path to success while blacks and hispanics have been in the US much longer. Blacks and hispanics need to figure it out on their own without having someone tell them and help them with affirmative action. It's in the news every day that education, whether in science, technology, or other, is the key to success.
Louise Epstein July 23, 2012 at 11:07 AM
Why paint with a broad brush like the FCPS staff? Instead, look at complete data. For example, in 2006-07 the TJ admissions office rejected 14 Hispanic students who scored 40 or more on the math section of the TJ admissions test, including three who scored 45 or more. In fact, it admitted only 10 of the 22 Hispanic students who scored 42 or higher. That same year, the TJ admissions office admitted about 50 students who scored under 40 and about 90 students (out of about 480) who scored under 42 on the math section of the TJ admissions test. To put this into context, about 440 applicants that year scored 45 or higher on the math test, about 700 scored 42 or higher, and about 900 scored 40 or higher. In other words, by deemphasizing math ability, the process has rejected many students who would have thrived at TJ, and admitted many students who needed remediation once they arrived at TJ.
Duncan Forbes July 23, 2012 at 01:35 PM
Tina Hone is incorrect when she asserts that “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 ...” Scientists and engineers must be competent and fluent in mathematics, or they will not become scientists and engineers. This fluency must be at least through calculus, and for many branches of engineering, and certainly the physical sciences, must extend beyond calculus. This is indisputable; simply look at the required coursework for the degrees. TJ's mission is to prepare the students for and to promote STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics] careers among its students. This requires not "math-whizzes," but a high level of mathematical preparation in the incoming class. It also requires a deep interest -- the word "passion" has perhaps been overused -- in STEM related topics. In other words, mathematical fluency is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success at TJ.
BurkeMom July 23, 2012 at 03:24 PM
Tina Hone needs to get away from facile and ignorant stereotypes of asian math geniuses - they are every bit as creative as your black rock star or hispanic music talent on tv - such cultural and intellectual ignorance and laziness in thinking on the part of Tina is the reason that blacks and hispanics don't have effective community advocates who can show the true way to success in the sciences. As a scientist and mathematician I can tell you there is a lot of creativity in science and math - that is why it is cool and that is how I show my kids how to succeed. Just because koreans/chinese make their kids work hard to excel no matter what the subject (think Tiger Mom and getting your kid into julliard for music), doesn't mean that math and science are without creativity or that math standards need to be lowered to get the creative types. That is just ignorance - and Tina should know better.
rkherndon July 23, 2012 at 09:18 PM
In a way the admission process worked against its own theme - to create diversity. If FCPS had not tweaked the process there would have been more Blacks and Hispanics (on their own merit). Resources needed to enrich students are being used just to bring them to base.
rkherndon July 23, 2012 at 09:25 PM
school board members are hardly interested in education. Some like Tina do make statements that open up their ignorance. We all know what kind of havoc a realtor created at U Va. We should just try to work hard to keep the board with members who can devote time to the cause of school in a positive way.
McLparent July 23, 2012 at 10:34 PM
The problem with FCPS is that there's too much of an emphasis with "teaching" using worksheets so that schools can get great SOL scores. I remember when I was in school, each grade received text books and kids were actually taught the material. FCPS also needs to get rid of 1/2 day Mondays.
MathLover July 23, 2012 at 11:01 PM
If mathematicians and scientists didn't have creativity, where would we be without all the current technologically advancements? Was that all done by political leaders? May be we would still be a hunter/gatherer society. Ms. Hone, you can open a human physiology book and you will realize how much physics governs the human body and you need to understand derivatives to properly understand what it is. Please open a economics book, You will see plenty of references to calculus. Forget about calculus, an average american does not know how to compute interest and does not understand what high interest debt does to them. It is absolutely important everyone gets a sound math foundation as much as language and communication skills. It is the key for good problem solving and analytical skills that is needed everyday in this day and age.
jomarsh124 July 23, 2012 at 11:51 PM
Two things regarding "To put this into context, about 440 applicants that year scored 45 or higher on the math test, about 700 scored 42 or higher, and about 900 scored 40 or higher." 1) No properly centered test intended to identify students who can do math would ever have 15% of test takers getting 90% and 25% getting 80% correct. A decent test would have 10% getting something like 80% correct, 20% getting 70% correct so it's possible to tell who really are good at math as opposed to merely OK. 2) Combine the first problem with a linear score (30-50 correct translated into 0-20) out of 100 in the second round of the admissions process and you a huge compression of math scores at significantly different levels of math ability. Result. Kids who are merely OK at math getting into TJ and kids who are really good at math going to base schools. Result of kids who are really good at math going to base schools? Multivariate Calc/Matrix Algebra classes at local HSes and kids who can't make it at TJ. A true waste of talent and money by FCPS.
rkherndon July 24, 2012 at 12:38 AM
A better observation would have been that creativity is not just limited to math and science and we need to have a school similar to TJ for arts as well.

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