The Hill: National Merit award scandal is the latest chapter in TJ’s war on achievement

January 23, 2023 | By ERIN WILCOX
TJ admissions case

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is in hot water with parents again. Administrators used “equity” as a justification for withholding information from students that may impact the trajectory of their academic futures.

In the final weeks of 2022, Thomas Jefferson parent Shawna Yashar made an odd discovery. Her son had earned a National Merit Scholar award commending him for his high performance on the PSAT he took in the fall of 2021.

Under normal circumstances, this honor would have been cause for celebration — it’s a potent garland on a college application. But neither Shawna nor her son had any idea that he had earned the award when they were submitting those applications. In fact, none of the TJ recipients of the National Merit Scholars award knew because school officials intentionally decided to keep this information to themselves for fear that it might hurt the feelings of students who did not receive an award.

TJ officials learned in mid-October which students received awards. That makes it confounding that they waited several weeks to inform the students by quietly placing the awards on each student’s desk — well after college early acceptance application deadlines had passed and with none of the fanfare common in other schools.

Winning a National Merit Scholar award can open a lot of doors for a student, including entrance into the college of their choice and the scholarship money to pay for it. But TJ administrators slammed those doors shut in the name of promoting new school policies that promise “equal outcomes for every student, without exception.”

It shouldn’t be surprising, at this point, that TJ would go to such lengths to squash individual achievement.

The school has been backing away from its emphasis on individual merit since George Floyd’s shocking death over two years ago put race relations in America front and center. TJ has since abolished its old race-neutral admissions standards based on GPA and test scores and adopted new “holistic” admissions policies that favor equal outcomes over equal opportunity — shunting aside individual merit in the process.

The Fairfax County school board claimed the admissions policy changes were intended to diversify the student body, but comments made publicly by school board officials, as well as text messages that came to light during litigation, revealed an apparently seedier motive to limit the number of Asian American students accepted to TJ.

Equity crusaders believed that because many Asian American students had high test scores, their individual academic excellence was preventing Black and Hispanic students from attending TJ.

Under the new guidelines, immutable characteristics, such as race and ethnicity, play a deciding role in the admissions process and appear to target Asian American students.

Two years ago, Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit against the school on behalf of the Coalition for TJ, a group of TJ parents, children and alumni who were concerned about the school’s disregard of the Fourteenth Amendment. Last February, a federal district court judge agreed with the Coalition for TJ, finding that the school board intentionally changed TJ’s admissions policy to make it harder for Asian American students to earn a seat. The case is on appeal, and Virginia’s attorney general recently announced two investigations into the TJ admissions policy and the school’s delay in notifying National Merit award winners.

As a public school, TJ is bound to fulfill the Constitution’s promise of equal treatment under the law, which explicitly forbids public entities from judging a person based on arbitrary factors such as race and instead guarantees that each person should be treated as an individual.

The school defended its decision to withhold notification from National Merit Scholar award winners with language that sounds like it values the individual students: “We want to recognize students for who they are as individuals, not focus on their achievements,” a school official told Shawna Yashar. But what better way to honor a student’s individuality than to celebrate their unique academic achievements?

TJ administrators evidently don’t want to celebrate the success of individual students. In their quest for racial equity at all costs, school leaders lump students into groups based on characteristics over which they have no control and try to ensure that the groups perform the same — even if it potentially harms an individual student’s college prospects.

It’s almost unbelievable that any school would work against its students to downplay their success. The situation at TJ is a chilling warning of what can happen when schools value equal outcomes over individual hard work and achievement.

Students are not pawns for adults to advance their abstract social justice goals. They’re unique individuals entitled to equal treatment under the law, just like everyone else.

This op-ed was originally published at The Hill on January 23, 2023.