FAIRFAX, Va. (CN) — Attorneys for students hoping to attend the country’s most prestigious public science and technology high school argued Monday that a Virginia school board unfairly eliminated the standardized admissions tests that would have made their acceptance a sure thing.
But attorneys for Fairfax County School Board asked a county circuit court judge to toss out the case brought aspiring Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology students and their parents. The school's students, they argue, do not necessarily have to be designated as gifted.
“Where is the law that TJ can only be for gifted students?” asked Stuart A. Raphael of Hunton Andrews Kurth, attorney for the school board and its superintendent, Scott. S. Brabrand. “There isn’t one.”
But the school board's decision to change the admissions process was described Monday by attorney William H. Hurd of Troutman Pepper as "arbitrary and capricious" and unlawful.
The students and their parents, represented by Hurd, filed suit last November, arguing that the school board exceeded its authority in October when members voted to abolish administration of standardized tests as part of the admissions process for the school. Brabrand, also a defendant in the case, then announced he would implement the decision.
A notice posted on the school’s website outlines the new requirements for freshmen applicants, including completing a student portrait sheet demonstrating their personal attributes as well as a problem-solving essay. Students also must be enrolled in both math and science honors courses.
The lawsuit asks Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge John M. Tran to order the school board to reverse its decision and reinstate the standardized testing system.
Thomas Jefferson is a regional governor’s school for science and technology. The Virginia Department of Education established requirements for these schools, which must “provide educational options not available at home schools for students identified as gifted or eligible to be so designated,” according to the complaint. The state Legislature designates funds specifically for gifted students.
Hurd argued that the school board has “never said what a governor's school is, if it is not a school for gifted students.”
"It doesn't mean a school where a few of the students are gifted,” the attorney said during the hearing.
High schools and colleges around the country are rethinking standardized admissions tests as they look to diversify student enrollments. Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. Roughly 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.
Ranked No. 1 on the list of U.S. News and World Report’s best public high schools, Thomas Jefferson is a competitive destination for regional students with an interest in science, technology, engineering and math.
Students involved in the lawsuit were identified as gifted early on, in second or third grade. Parents include a chemistry professor at American University along with information technology consultants and software professionals.
The admissions tests in question included a math test with problems ranging from easy to difficult, a science test and a reading test. Each of the tests take 50 minutes to an hour to complete. If the school continued to use the tests, the lawsuit argued, each of the named student plaintiffs would likely to get into the school. That would not be the case if the tests are eliminated, they say.
They also allege the board acted unlawfully by making the decision during a work session in which no public comment was taken.
In court documents, attorneys for the school board countered that Thomas Jefferson “has always been open to students who have not been separately identified as gifted under the Virginia Department of Education regulations.”
Noting state lawmakers have not required the Fairfax County School Board to use standardized testing in the admissions process, the board’s brief states that the Virginia Constitution “grants the school board plenary authority over the public schools in Fairfax County unless the General Assembly has enacted a law validly restricting that authority.”
Judge Tran took the case under advisement after hearing arguments Monday. It is unclear when he will issue a ruling on the school board's motion seeking dismissal of all counts.
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