On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
It’s been a contentious fall at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. This month County Superintendent Scott Brabrand, with the support of the Fairfax County Public Schools Board, eliminated the school’s infamous admissions test, as well as its $100 application fee.
The decision was celebrated by some alumni, parents and students, who say this measure will increase diversity in the school’s student body. But the decision was also highly criticized and protested by others, who say that the admissions exam was what ensured each class had the highest caliber of students.
But while the test is gone, what will replace it is still uncertain. Most recently, the Fairfax County Public Schools Board instructed Superintendent Brabrand to “establish a plan for student talent development” in order to address a lack of diversity at the school. But what would this plan look like? We’ll talk with a parent and alum with opposing perspectives, as well as Superintendent Brabrand, who was behind the decision to eliminate the admissions test.
Produced by Inés Rénique
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast it's Kojo For Kids. We welcome Author and poet Kwame Alexander. But first it's been a contentious fall at one of the nation's top public schools, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. The school recently dropped its admissions test and application fee and is in the process of deciding what will replace that test.
KOJO NNAMDIThe decision is being praised by some alumni parents and students who say it will increase the diversity of the school student body, but others say the school's admissions exam is what makes it a top performing school. Joining us now is Makya Renée Little, a Thomas Jefferson High School Alum and President of the TJ Alumni Action Group. Makya, thank you for joining us.
MAKYA RENÉE LITTLEThank you so much for inviting the TJ Alumni Action Group to speak to this topic. We really appreciate the opportunity.
NNAMDIYou and a group of other alumni along with some other current students are advocating a lottery to replace the admissions test among other changes. Why did you formally organize and what other changes do you want to see the school district undertake?
LITTLESo we formally organized, because as a group of more than 1,000 alumni with geographic socioeconomic racial and multigenerational diversity, we want to help TJ live up to its original intention. We want to help TJ fulfill its role as a publically funded governor's school to nurture effective future STEM leaders and to innovate how STEM education is taught in Northern Virginia and the region. And not only have we offered our experiences to help inform school board members and potential policymakers, who may have a say in this conversation, we've also lended our expertise, because we recognize that although we benefited from a TJ education there's a lot of room for improvement.
NNAMDISo why do you favor a lottery over an admission test?
LITTLEWe feel that it's really hard in any admissions process to remove biases from the process. And there's a lot of research and data that we've discovered and found that makes lotteries very effective admissions determiners and universities that are highly ranked such as Harvard, MIT, Princeton have moved away from test based admissions either by making it test optional and seven out of the top 20 high schools according to U.S. News also use lotteries in their admissions processes. So we feel that it's one of the best ways to ensure representative diversity at TJ.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is Asra Nomani, Thomas Jefferson High School Parent and the Co-founder of the Coalition for TJ. Asra, thank you for joining us.
ASRA NOMANIThanks so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou and other parents at the Coalition for TJ have different views on what is best for the Thomas Jefferson High School community. Tell us your thoughts on the proposed admissions changes and why you think the test should remain.
NOMANIBless you. Let me tell you what's happening in the trenches here at Fairfax County. Our families and students at TJ are in the crosshairs of a war against merit, a war against STEM and a war against our mostly Asian, mostly immigrant families. Even in your introduction just now you talked about the issue of diversity at TJ, and then you noted 70 percent of our kids are Asian. That's diversity.
NOMANIAnd I'll just tell you, like, my family's journey as a window into the 8,000 plus members of our Coalition for TJ. It parallels your journey, Kojo. In the 1940s, my father climbed a bunion tree to support Mahatma Gandhi's march for independence from British colonialism. In the 60's my father came into the U.S. to study just like you went to Canada from Guyana after wagging your own battle against British rule. In '69, I arrived here English as second language student eating free breakfast at Martin Luther King Elementary School with other kids living below the poverty line.
NOMANIAnd since June our school, our students, our families have been under attack by Ms. Little's organization, the superintendent, the principal, the state education secretary, the school board. They're all exploiting George Floyd's tragic killing to save face after decades of failing Black and Hispanic students. This is a tragedy right now that's happening to our school system. And I just want to ground our conversation in the message that I heard as a little girl from Martin Luther King. "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." That's what the merit base test did.
NOMANIWhen we fail to educate our Black and Hispanic kids in our Fairfax County School System to the level where they can have the advanced learning that TJ offers that's a failure from the bottom. And so you don't bring down the top in order to make yourself feel better and save face. We have to return this merit based system into our school. And we have to follow the ideas and ideals of Martin Luther King in evaluating people by their intellect and their mind and their character not the color of their skin.
NNAMDIWell, you know I live in Washington D.C. where in this city the wards east of the river in Ward 7 and Ward 8 are the most challenged communities. And most of the schools in that region are predominantly African American. You seem to be suggesting that because a school is predominantly Asian its diversity -- would you also suggest that those schools in the poorest wards of Washington are a good example of diversity, because the of the so-called majority minority?
NOMANIKojo, I've lived in D.C. I know D.C., you know, the issues relating to our borders there, and we have the same crisis in Fairfax County. So let me just tell you some of the data. In our schools with mostly low income Black and Hispanic students, we have reading pass rates of about 56 percent compared to 79 percent in other schools. That's a failure of Fairfax County Public Schools. We have a dropout rate of about 20 percent for Hispanic students compared to 9 percent for economically disadvantaged students, and then one percent for white and Asian students. There's a disparity. No doubt. We have to fix that disparity just like in D.C. just like in other communities around the country.
NOMANIDoing something like this half-baked solution of a lottery is not the fix. We have to work at the pipeline. We have to get that reading level up from the beginning elementary schools levels. You know, this feel good, band-aid solution is only going to hurt those kids that get into the school, because we have lowered the admission standards. And yet maintaining -- we're going to maintain these high levels of classes that we have, Artificial Intelligence, Multivariable Calculus. You lower the expectation for those students and you're going to end up setting them up for failure in this school.
NNAMDIWell, what do you say to Makya Renée Little's point about the fact that Harvard and other elite universities have changed their admissions criteria? But they don't seem to have -- their standards doesn't seem to have dropped and they've been able to increase their diversity by doing that.
NOMANIWell, let's look back at history. In the 1920s -- 30s we had largely Jewish students really coming into -- we had many Jewish students coming in to the Ivy League schools. What did they do then? They changed their admissions so that they could discriminate against those students. We have the same kind of dynamic going on in those so-called Ivy League schools today, and they too have been targeting Asian students. And so those schools -- my son is a senior now. We're going through admission process. Those schools still takes tests. You can't just look at, you know, the examples of college here and a lottery there to then assess that this is the best system.
NOMANIWhen you have lotteries, you have more failure rate. You have more dropout rates of students that come in as freshmen. You're not making certain that these kids are able to meet the academic standards that the school is going to then offer.
NNAMDIWell, needless to say there are a lot of people who want to join this conversation. Here is Sujata in Fairfax County. And apparently Sujata is with the Fairfax County NAACP. Sujata, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUJATAThe Fairfax County NAACP strongly support the merit lottery system. And I believe it was Asra, who was talking before me. And she was saying that this is just a watered down system. And you're going to lower the standards. But what she's not acknowledging is that we agree that there is a pipeline problem. We agree that we need to be fixing the system from the time children enter the system until they graduate for sure. But what we're not acknowledging is that there's no reason to think that a test that is prepped for for many years -- very often prepped for from the time kids are in 3rd and 4th grade that that would indicate merit any better than any other way we have that isn't so prep able and that would acknowledge that there are lots of ways to determine passions, to determine aptitude that is not in a test.
SUJATAWe already know that the system is bias. We know that children get tracked from the time that they enter school. They are often not allowed to enter AP programs, because of old biases from the very beginning from the time they enter to who gets in AAP, advanced academic. And almost everybody who gets into TJ gets into advanced academics. But it's the same kind of thing. Kids being prepped for that to get into the AAP program in Fairfax County, which happens when they're seven or eight years old.
SUJATAAnd if we could maybe find something more robust and more holistic, which I've heard that Coalition for TJ Parents talk about a holistic system. We could find ways that children show their aptitude and passion for STEM that is not in the current system. And the merit lottery, they always talk about the lottery without talking about the merit. Nobody is talking about just throwing any child willy-nilly into this lottery. That's not what anybody is saying. They're talking about raising the GPA to a higher GPA, which already has some subjectivity to it to begin with because GPAs are not standard across the county. But at least there's that. And we they are coming up with a metric that would be more holistic and try to (unintelligible).
NOMANIHere's the thing, Kojo. What the NAACP has admitted here is that this supposed lottery is going -- this supposed merit lottery is actually going to increase the number of white students at TJ. It's going to decimate the number of Asian students to less than half. And we are going to move to school that is going to be very white. This was the data that we had in ten 1980s and what they are going to be doing with this lottery system is make TJ white again.
NNAMDIWell, Makya, you get the last word in this segment.
LITTLESo although the number of Asian students will indeed go down, this is not about being anti-Asian, pro-white. This is really about inequity and the uneven accessibility to a public resource. According to 2019 and 2020 Fairfax County data almost 20 percent of Asian students in the county are socioeconomically disadvantaged. And although TJ's student body is 73 percent Asian, only 2.4 percent of all TJ students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. So there are many subgroups of Asian Americans to include Vietnamese, Pakistani and Esau Asian students currently being overlooked by the current process. And reforming our admissions process will benefit them as well as other underrepresented groups.
NNAMDII think we have to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with the Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools Scott Brabrand. I am Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the big admissions change at a top Fairfax County high school, and joining us now is Scott Brabrand. He is the Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. Scott Brabrand, thank you for joining us.
SCOTT BRABRANDNo, thank you, Kojo. Great to be here.
NNAMDIWhy did you undertake getting rid of the admissions test and what exactly will replace it?
BRABRANDWell, the why is we have diversity in our school system. That is not being fully reflected in Thomas Jefferson's admitted class. We have diversity in the Jefferson pool that's been there year after year after year. And we've had a barrier of a standardized test. And we have a myth out there that the test gets us the best. We have kids of merit, who are qualified to go to TJ and they're not getting in through a barrier of a standardized test.
BRABRANDSo it was time after two decades of looking at this about how we get the diverse talent pool into TJ's admitted class to do something different. That's why we're doing it and we're looking at a merit lottery approach. We're looking at holistic admissions. We're looking at a hybrid of a merit lottery and holistic admissions. But the status quo has got to go, we can't keep doing the same thing and leaving talented kids that are in the pool that apply and don't get in, because they're not aces at a standardized test process. That is keeping us from getting the best.
NNAMDILast week the Fairfax County Public School Board directed you to establish a plan for student talent development. Exactly what is that and what is the board asking you to do?
BRABRANDWhat they're asking us to do is really go back and look at our pipeline. A lot of the outside experts call it frontloading. How do you make sure we are really building talent in our system versus just identifying talent that already exists? We start taking a look at talent as early as second grade, and there is already built-in inequities. You're just in school two or three years and we're deciding who really can be in advanced academics, and those choices stay with students over a lifetime.
BRABRANDWe can frontload and build talent earlier than second grade and throughout the elementary year. So they really ask me to look at equity of access to all those advance level offerings that we have. They've talked about me having a fulltime advanced academic resource teacher in our elementary schools. We have them two years ago with school board support in our title one schools that have higher free and reduced lunch participation rates. But these are teachers that help put the advanced curriculum that's now just saved for a few kids into every classroom.
BRABRANDEvery kid can get to engage in this high rich kind of curriculum. It's also asking us to look at expanding our young scholar's program where we identify kids of real talent and support them all the way through their school career. And we're going to do that work. We're going to communicate more to our parents. And we're going to make sure we have all of the opportunities for math and science and STEM at the elementary level. And I'll be sharing an update on much of this next month, and even in the next few weeks as we really look at an outside consultant who came in to look at our advanced academics.
BRABRANDWe're going to be looking at the recommendations they gave us and responding to those recommendations on behalf of the schoolboard who has asked us to take a deeper look at how we can have a more equitable advanced academic program.
NNAMDINeedless to say a lot of Fairfax County parents want to talk with you. Let's start with Harry in Herndon. Harry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HARRYHi. Hi, thank you, Kojo. Thanks for having me on. So like I've, you know, evolved with his process for some time now. And just what was not mentioned earlier -- it was a little disappointing to hear, you know, the NAACP endorse this plan, because when you look at this plan -- for some white people, example, the presence of a Black person in a white dominated space becomes a threatening symbol of Black advancement at the expense of white. I looked at the term proposals. They tend to regulate shared majority white spaces in our neighborhoods as in Fairfax County as well. I'd like to point out that 18 percent of AAP population is Black and Hispanic, but, however, only five percent of them get into TJ.
HARRYMost of the AAP centers are in the more affluent and majority white north and northwest regions of the country. These proposals would disenfranchise the opportunity for these students -- those Black and Hispanic students that make up -- that are within already in advanced academic programs. Not only does it deny these children the opportunity to advance. But it also incentivizes self-segregation so that Black families do not move into majority white neighborhoods to attain better access to an AAP center if they are considering their chance to admission.
NNAMDIHarry, are you reading something?
HARRYWell, I did prepare, because it was a prepared statement.
NNAMDIWell, let me have the school superintendent respond in a non-prepared statement. Scott Brabrand.
BRABRANDWell, let me say this, Harry, thanks for your comments. And let me say, one of the things that you're going to be hearing from the school board, they've asked about it at a forum topic and we're going to be talking about it actually this week. Our advanced academic programs need to be in all of our elementary schools and our level four, which is a level equal to what we have in a center. Those are only in some of our elementary school and they're not in others. That's inequitable. That's not giving every kids a shot. We have done a good job of making our AAP centers more diverse. They're more diverse than TJ. I totally agree with Harry and that's the point.
BRABRANDWhy aren't those kids who are already in the advanced academic center not getting into TJ? The bottom line is the test has been a barrier. And we have a myth that tests in this country automatically means you're the best student. And I simply don't believe. More and more colleges are coming to believe that the best student isn't simply defined through a test score, and it's time for us to do the same.
BRABRANDWe are expanding, though, our local level four, our advanced academics. We're going to bring a plan to expand that. It shouldn't be good just to have that in one school, but not in another school. And that is something we can and will do a better job of in Fairfax County Public Schools.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Harry. Let's go to Vanesa in Fairfax, Virginia who takes us into the middle of the, I guess, racial and eugenics dispute. Vanesa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VANESAHi. This is for everyone really. I have been monitoring this for a long time on Twitter and town hall chats and school board meetings. And I hear nonstop racist comments from the Coalition for TJ parents, which makes me really uncomfortable. They say Black students are unmotivated. They have single parents. They prefer sports, and that's why they're not in TJ. I've heard that so many times. I've also heard eugenics based comments like Asians are smarter, Asians work harder, etcetera. I've even heard that from former Republican school board candidates like Vinson Palathingal. Coalition for TJ also is against anti-racism teachings.
NNAMDII don't know if Asra is still with us, but if she is, I'd like to have her respond. Asra, are you there?
NOMANIYeah. I'm still here, and I know Vanesa very well. She's a troll on Tweeter who's always harassing us with misrepresentation.
NOMANIYeah, and I just want to say like what's at the heart of this? Even Superintendent Brabrand in his statements just now, his statements over the past months, you know, dismissing our Asian students as quote, "students of color." He doesn't include them. Vanesa, all these others from this TJ Alumni Action Group, what they've done is they've created this race war by essentially minimizing and whitewashing our families. In this theory of critical race theory that, you know, Scott Brabrand has spent $20,000 to have the architect Ibram Kendi come and speak to teachers for one hour, $333 a minute more perhaps than you get, Kojo, every minute, I hope.
NOMANIYou know, because we have wasted our taxpayer money on indoctrination and not education. And so what Scoot Brabrand just talked about about the test being the barrier ...
NNAMDIWell, you seem to be suggesting that people like Ibram Kendi are invested in indoctrination when it is my understanding that people like Ibram Kendi are invested in trying to correct the false history of the African American presence in this country. Why would you call that indoctrination?
NOMANIBecause you know what happens in that, Kojo, and you may not know this as personally as we do, Asian are whitewashed then. That is exactly what Scott Brabrand, Vanesa and TJ Alumni Action Group have done. We don't count anymore in the minority narrative in this country, and that is deeply hurtful.
BRABRAND(overlapping) So Kojo, this is Dr. Brabrand.
NOMANIAnd Dr. Brabrand, I wanted to say that as long as you're going to have anti-bias activity you need to practice it as well.
NNAMDIAnd you get the last word Dr. Brabrand.
BRABRANDOur approaches to the challenges at TJ are race neutral. The merit lottery is a race neutral approach. Holistic admissions is race neutral. I've never put race into the conversation, others have. We have diversity in our system, in our pipeline and it's not getting in to the admitted class at TJ, and a standardized test -- the era of standardized test is ending and it's being accelerated by COVID-19 and that is a win for public education and for higher education. The best colleges are moving away from a test. They can find the best without just a test.
NNAMDIScott Brabrand, Asra Nomani and Makya Renée Little, thank you all for joining us. When we come back, we'll be talking -- Kojo For Kids with Kwame Alexander. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.