Thomas Jefferson High School’s decision to change to lottery-based admissions provides more opportunities for diversity



Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), the somewhat prestigious, number 1 ranked public high school in the U.S., recently made the decision to shift from a merit based admissions system to a “lottery” type admission. Historically, getting into TJ has been an arduous experience. Preparation for the infamous TJ tests and essays can begin as early as the sixth grade, and making the GPA cutoff is on the mind from the beginning of middle school. Going to TJ is not something one simply decides to do, but what one plans and prepares with a fiery, burning passion for learning. 

Passion alone, unfortunately, does not make the cut. Families have dropped thousands of dollars on “TJ Prep”, which presents a very unfair disadvantage for those who do not have access to these preparational resources. The old admissions process puts this applicant population at a disadvantage because communities of color are typically lower income, less likely to be able to afford TJ prep, and have less access to higher education programs and clubs that better the learning experience. 

“If you are really passionate about STEM, but have never had the chance to join a program, it leaves you at a disadvantage,” Elsyad said.

Elsyad is a senior at TJ and part of the 1% of Black students who make up the student body. The Black student body percentage has always been less than that of the applicant pool; an average of 8% of applicants each year are Black. 

“Being a minority at TJ is really uncomfortable,” Didi Elsyad (’21) said. 

Alison Luckett, a TJ graduate and member of the TJ Alumni Action Group, which has come out in support of Brabrand’s proposal, expressed similar concerns about inclusivity and accessibility.

 “TJ was not a diverse place,” Luckett said. “There were not a lot of people who were different from me, and there were not a lot of conversations about diversity. It wasn’t really something the students or administration talked about or appreciated or saw as something valuable.”

To address this inequity and the lack of diversity, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand proposed a new admissions procedure. In place of the two-part reading, math and science exam, a merit lottery system will be implemented, in which students who are interested in the school, are enrolled in or have taken Algebra I and have a GPA of at least 3.5 will be randomly selected from different geographic regions of the state. Teacher recommendations and the $100 application fee will no longer be required. 

The Fairfax County Public Schools Board voted in favor of the proposal at an Oct. 8 meeting, and the admissions test and application fee will be eliminated, effective immediately. However, at that same meeting, Brabrand announced that he will propose a revised plan to the merit lottery system in November. 

Different groups and individuals, including current TJ students, alumni and parents, have come out in support of and against the proposal. The Coalition for TJ Group, made up of parents, students and community members, opposes the merit lottery system. They claim that it will actually reduce diversity at the school and harm Asian applicants by only temporarily increasing the number of Latinx and Black students, while significantly increasing the number of White students. 

“In a best-case scenario with successful outreach, the proposed lottery plan will only minimally increase representation of Black and Hispanic students,” the Coalition for TJ Group said on their website

When evaluating the effects of the proposal, however, it is important to consider the demographic makeup of FCPS. According to the 2019 Fall Membership by Subgroup report in the Virginia Department of Education School Quality Profile, 37.8% of the FCPS student body is White, 26.8% is Hispanic, 19.5% is Asian, 9.8% are Black, 5.7% is two or more races, 0.3% is American Indian and 0.1% is Native Hawaiian. In contrast, of the 486 students offered admission to TJ for the Class of 2024, 17.7% were White, 3.3% were Hispanic, 73% were Asian and 6% were Multiracial/Other. Note that less than 10 Black students were admitted that year, so they were counted under the Multiracial/Other category. Therefore, if the proposal achieves one of its goals of making the TJ student population better reflect the FCPS student population, it is true that the number of Asian students admitted would likely decrease and the number of White students would increase. However, the number of Black and Latinx students would increase as well, another key goal of the proposal. 

The TJ Alumni Action Group (TJAAG) supports the proposal, including the merit lottery system. They argue that it would expand TJ’s opportunities to students with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. 

“I think it’s a step in the right direction towards making the school more accessible to everyone, especially people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go there,” Luckett said. “I think that is what the point should be.”

Luckett also noted that many of her classmates believed the admissions process to be fair and reflective of a true meritocracy.

“There definitely was a belief that ‘meritocracy is how I got here’ and ‘I just worked harder and did better,’ and that’s something you hear now, too, as they’re changing the process,” Luckett said. “People are like ‘just study for the test, what’s there to cheat on a test?’ or, ‘what’s there to be unequal about a test,’ and there’s a lack of understanding of all the intersections that brought us here.”

And in this false belief—that the system is fine and certain groups are underrepresented simply because they are not trying hard enough—lies the root of this issue, as well as the root of many debates about educational equity.

“This problem, I think, shows how closely intertwined racial inequity and socioeconomic inequity and housing segregation and things like that tie together,” Luckett said.

This proposal is a critical first step in acknowledging and responding to the flaws in the admissions system. While it is unclear for now if a lottery system is the best way to address these educational inequities, there is obviously a problem, and ignoring it is not the solution.