A Northern Virginia magnet high school was recently ranked the nation’s No. 2 public high school by US News and World Report. But at the same time, it’s rushing to add emergency help sessions for freshmen before final exams begin, in an attempt to help the staggering one-third of freshmen currently struggling in science, math, or both, according to a report in the Washington Examiner.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria has traditionally been an educational powerhouse. But recently, it’s been posting troubling statistics, particularly amongst its younger students, according to an April letter to the Fairfax County Public School Board and Thomas Jefferson Admissions Director Tanisha Holland by seven TJ faculty members.
The letter from the faculty members alleges that 30 percent of students had been recommended for remediation in math and science, while 15 percent of the freshman class had a GPA below 3.3, nearly double the average of 8 percent over the past three years.
The letter blamed student underperformance on a mixture of lax middle school standards that allow multiple retakes of assessments, and a flawed admissions process that sets low standards for incoming applicants. The teachers found that questions on the mathematics portion of the admissions test were written almost two grade levels too low, while students themselves had not “had exposure to key Algebra I course topics.”
Thomas Jefferson is already taking steps to increase student achievement, according to the Examiner. In addition to exam help sessions and a peer tutoring program, the Examiner is reporting that the school is also implementing an Algebra summer “boot camp” for incoming freshmen. But in their letter, the teachers recommend broad-based reforms to the admissions policy itself, which was modified in 2004 and again in 2009 in an attempt to boost diversity. They suggest a more difficult math application, as well as higher weighting toward applicants’ middle school grades. Recently the Washington Post’s editorial board joined in the criticism, stating that Fairfax County’s admissions modifications did “not have the desired effect.”
Holland has stated to numerous sources that she is investigating the school’s admissions process. In the June edition of Thomas Jefferson’s monthly newsletter, however, Principal Evan Glazer wrote that the freshman class’s low performance could still be an “aberration.”
“It will take time and an analysis of concrete data to correctly identify the source(s) of the problem,” Glazer wrote. “Blaming a single source at this point is merely speculation, and is not productive.”
Thomas Jefferson will hold a parents meeting on Wednesday to address diagnostic tools and further academic intervention, while the school board will open up another discussion of TJ’s admissions process in July.