Ongoing diversity issues at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology were overshadowed by concerns of a new trend occurring at a school — more students needing remedial help in math.
On Thursday, school officials looked at the school’s admissions process to see if there were ways to increase the number of blacks and Hispanics attending and applying to the school, as well as decrease the number of students who would need remedial help.
While TJ has drawn headlines in the past for its student population being only about 2 percent black and 3 percent Hispanic, headlines this spring reported a high number of students this year needed remediation in math.
TJ Principal Evan Glazer said he estimates between 15 and 30 percent of students at the high school need extra help in math. During a Thursday night work session on TJ’s admissions process, School Board members said they were surprised by Glazer’s statistic because students — who are admitted to TJ through its lengthy admissions process — are tested in their math competency.
“From the teachers’ perspective[s], they have seen a noticeable change in this past year,” Glazer said. “What’s happening at our school is our teachers are placing so much emphasis on helping those students [who need remediation] … As a result they are facing a dilemma of ‘How do I help those students who want to excel?’”
Glazer offered a list of nine possible causes to the remediation seen at TJ. Among them was misperception of TJ as being a prep school rather than a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math school, which could mean it draws students who might be gifted but not in STEM classes. Additionally, Glazer said the admissions criteria and test used to guage student talent might be flawed.
School Board members said they expressed these same concerns about TJ’s admissions process.
TJ admits about 480 eighth-grade students each year from the region. The final decision on applicants is based on essays (25 percent), teacher recommendations (20 percent), math scores from the admissions test (20 percent) and math and science grade point averages (15 percent). The other 20 percent comes from a student’s information sheet that also is submitted during the process.
“The issue really comes down to the fact that we have 11 sections of remedial math at TJ this year,” said School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District). “I think it would be interesting to see what it would look like if you had a 50 percent weight on math scores. … We have 65 percent of the weight of how kids get in coming down to not math; it’s not science [scores].”
Schultz said how well a student writes and teacher recommendations should not be weighed more than math and science proficiency at a school boasting a heavy STEM curriculum.
“I’m very concerned with where we are with TJ admissions,” said School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason District). “We’ve got students who are admitted now who aren’t prepared to do the work and we haven’t increased diversity.
“How has this happened? How do we have so much remediation in this school?”
Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale said it is not clear whether the admissions process is at fault for the higher number of students at TJ needing remediation in math.
“You don’t have empirical data … that suggests which one of the factors changes math success,” he said.
He cautioned School Board members on making changes to the admissions process — specifically increasing the weight of math scores and GPAs — before knowing whether weighing is causing the problem.
Even so, School Board members said they wanted to move forward with their study of the admissions process and a possible shift in the weights of application material toward a more math- and science-score focus. The School Board is scheduled to take up this topic again Sept. 10, at which time additional information on the admissions process and remediation will be presented by staff.