At first glance, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) appears to provide a useful alternative to students who are not challenged by the typical curriculum of the public education system. Their objective is to provide students with a demanding learning environment that emphasizes coursework in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The admissions process is highly competitive: TJHSST seeks students with a high demonstrated proficiency in and passion for STEM.
How does one measure these aptitudes and passions in an 8th grader? While the admissions committee does consider academic achievement, personal essays, and teacher recommendations, the component that most students (and parents) have turned their attention to is the merit-based admissions exam.
There’s just one problem: merit-based exams might not really exist.
Take the SAT, for example. Despite overwhelming evidence that affluent students have an unacceptable advantage, many four-year universities still require SAT scores to apply. Wealthier students boost their scores by taking the test multiple times or attending SAT prep courses and are disproportionately more likely to be granted extra time.
These same advantages are present in any admissions test, and the results can be seen in TJHSST’s lack of low-income students. While around 29% of students in Fairfax County Public Schools are from low-income families, just one percent of students offered admission to TJ in 2018 were low-income (See Figure 1 to the right).
This is not to say that the school does not offer an excellent education, or that students who do get in are under-qualified. TJHSST boasts a 100% graduation rate and best-in-state performance in English and math assessments; in 2019, TJHSST students took 3,647 AP exams, with over 98% of students earning a score of 3 or above. There is a rich assortment of post-AP courses offered as well that are not available at other schools.
The issue is that this accelerated education is disproportionately offered to high-income students. The opportunity to be challenged, take interesting classes, be surrounded by high-achieving peers, and pursue one’s interests in STEM should be based on merit rather than financial status. A lack of diversity in the STEM field at large is already a major problem.
Lottery-based systems seem to be the obvious solution if the goal is to increase diversity and access to accelerated education. But would it still be possible to get the achievement level that TJHSST has boasted?
BASIS, a system of charter schools that started in Arizona, offers an accelerated education to students who want it through a lottery-based admissions system that does not require a minimum GPA or admissions test score of any kind. While this may sound overly optimistic, the BASIS system continues to produce impressive results: In 2019, 59% of graduates were accepted to a top-ranked university and 92.1% earned some sort of AP scholar recognition.
This isn’t to say a lack of diversity isn’t still a problem for charter schools like BASIS: Hispanic students account for 44% of all students in Arizona, but they make up just 36% of charter school students.
However, eliminating an admissions test removes one barrier of many for low-income and minority students seeking an accelerated education. In fact, every BASIS school has students that qualify for free or reduced lunch, and in some schools this represents up to 20% of the student population. Furthermore, the charter model has allowed BASIS to expand from one school in 1998 to 28 schools today, greatly increasing state-wide access to their model of education.
In recent years, discussion of national education has centered around school choice, specifically the ability for parents to choose which school their children attend.
While reasonable arguments can be made for and against a model based upon parental choice, almost everyone can agree on one central fact: education at any level is meant to help people improve their lives. Advanced education models like TJHSST and BASIS were never meant to be a means for privileged families to get their child every possible advantage available. To this day, TJHSST’s mission statement continues to emphasize passion for STEM and reflect BASIS’ commitment to offering an alternative to an education system they see as broken.
Neither of these mission statements can be realized without the inclusion of minorities and low-income students, children and young adults who might not have access to any sort of supplementary education. To their credit, in October TJHSST abandoned two major drivers of exclusivity in their admission process: the admissions test and the admissions fee. However, unless TJHSST proactively encourages minority and low-income students to attend and provides them the necessary support systems when they matriculate, they will face the same challenges as Arizona charter schools.
More broadly, Virginia needs to support school choice and offer an accelerated education to every student who wants one: TJHSST is currently the only high school of its kind in Northern Virginia, and the Commonwealth only has eight charter schools total. High-income families already have the upper hand in the professional and academic world; it is about time to even the score. Abolishing admission tests and reforming evaluatory metrics at schools that offer accelerated education won’t immediately fix all the diversity issues that are present in advanced programs, but it would be a major step in the right direction.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.