Virginia Judge Allows Elite School to Drop Standardized Admissions Tests

As high schools and colleges around the country rethink the value of standardized tests, a Virginia judge ruled against parents who wanted to keep the tests as part of the admissions process for an elite public high school.

(Photo by F1 Digitals/Pixabay)

FAIRFAX, Va. (CN) — A Virginia judge has denied a preliminary injunction sought by parents of middle school students who sued the Fairfax County School Board over a plan to jettison standardized testing as part of the admissions process for one of the nation’s top high schools.     

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is a so-called governor’s school. As such, the lawsuit argued, it operates as a high school for gifted students identified through multiple criteria, including aptitude or achievement tests. 

But in his ruling Tuesday, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge John Tran found that no Virginia Department of Education regulation “requires specific measures for selecting candidates for admission to a governor’s school.”  

He also wrote that he was unconvinced by testimony that eliminating a nationally norm-referenced student achievement and aptitude test diminishes educational quality. He concluded that the parents had not shown that it was in the public interest to restore standardized testing as a prerequisite for admissions to the class of 2021.  

Throughout the country, high schools, universities and even Ivy League colleges have debated the value of these tests, and, in some cases removed them from admission requirements.  

But for the parents in the Fairfax County lawsuit, the board’s decision represented a sea change that could fundamentally transform the school ranked as the nation’s top public high school by U.S. News and World Report.  

Harry Jackson, the parent of one student, said during a hearing in the case that his daughter wanted to demonstrate that she could get into the school on her own merit. Other parents spoke of the sacrifices made by their children and the work that went into preparing for the tests, which will now not be used. 

The current student body of Thomas Jefferson does not mirror the northern Virginia community it serves – 72% of the students at the school are of Asian descent, according to the school system’s website. Another 18% are white, while just under 2% are Black and 3% are Hispanic. In Fairfax County, where the school is located, nearly 51% of residents are white, another 9% are African American, 19% are Asian, 16% are Hispanic and 4% identify as other.  

While the school has used standardized tests in recent years, it did not always do so.

“The top colleges in the nation are dispensing with requiring the SAT,” attorney Stuart A. Raphael of Hunton Andrews Kurth, who represented the school system, argued at last month’s hearing.   

Thomas Jefferson adjusted its admission requirements last fall.

“We’ve come to the understanding that the testing was a barrier to the historically underrepresented students,” testified Jeremy Shughart, the school’s director of admissions. 

Under the new plan, the top 1.5% of students in each public middle school meeting the school system’s minimum standards will be eligible for admission. The school system will also use a “holistic review,” according to the school’s website. Students will be evaluated on grade point average, a problem-solving essay and a student portrait sheet. Experience factors, including economic disadvantages, will also be considered.   

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