Students have been falling behind at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology for at least five years, the elite magnet school's principal said Thursday night, as school board members pushed to change the admissions process in time for the eighth-graders who will apply in September.
The Washington Examiner first reported that one-third of rising sophomores at TJ, as it's known, were recommended for remedial help in math, science or both by their teachers last school year. The magnet school is usually ranked best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
But Principal Evan Glazer said the problem may go back further. Although TJ students are expected to take Calculus BC in their junior year, the proportion of students reaching that bar has been dropping over the past five years. Last year, one-third of juniors instead took Calculus AB, a course that students master before Calculus BC.
Glazer could not say what the baseline was five years ago for juniors, but Braddock District school board member Megan McLaughlin said she believed double the number were now behind in calculus.
Glazer is seeking additional staffing since so many kids need help.
School board members called the number of students needing remedial help "unbelievable" at a packed meeting Thursday, and more than half of the 11 present members voted to make changes to TJ's admissions process before the next class is admitted. Applications will be reviewed as early as October.
"We see a serious pattern here, and you all want to sit on your hands another year?" McLaughlin said.
The main short-term change sought by board members is a different weighting system for students' applications. Before 2009, students' applications were viewed as a whole. But TJ now places 25 percent emphasis on student essays; 20 percent on an information sheet aimed at gauging students' passions; 20 percent on two teacher recommendations; 20 percent on math scores from an admissions exam; and 15 percent on students' math and science grades.
"I'm very concerned about the essay weight, with 65 percent of the weight of students getting in not being based on math or science, not based on their aptitude," said Springfield District board member Elizabeth Schultz. "It's based on what they write -- it's a liberal arts approach."
Terri Breeden, assistant superintendent of professional learning and accountability for Fairfax County Public Schools, said she would run models on what the class of 2015 would have looked like with math scores more heavily weighted. The board plans to meet again on the issue Sept. 10.
In a room of more than 100 parents, teachers and community members, Hilde Kahn sat for more than two hours with her son, a TJ graduate.
"There are people's lives affected by this," said Kahn, who has a junior at TJ and an eighth-grader who will apply this fall. "My heart goes out to those students who were told they're TJ material, and then. ... I hope they regain their self-esteem."