You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

In case you missed it, there was a bizarre news story coming out of the D.C. area a couple of weeks ago. “So what’s new?” you might ask, noting that the phrases “bizarre news story” and “D.C. area” in the same sentence are normally not newsworthy.

This particular story had nothing to do with the 15-round lightweight fight that resulted in Kevin McCarthy at long last achieving his life’s dream of being Speaker of the House of Representatives, although it did take place in the same time frame. It involved an investigation, but not into Hunter Biden’s laptop or whether Dr. Anthony Fauci created COVID. The investigation was not federal, but rather conducted by Virginia attorney general Jason Miyares.

What caught my attention were both the target of and the reason for the investigation. The target is the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, ranked by U.S. News as the top high school in America. We (that’s an editorial “we”) mention that factoid only to make the point that TJ, as it is known, is widely considered as one of the best secondary schools in the country, not because we consider the U.S. News rankings either valid or meaningful.

What really raised my eyebrows, though, was the issue creating the need for the investigation. The school is being investigated for having failed to inform students that they had been recognized as “commended students” in the National Merit Scholarship Competition.

“Commended student” is one of two levels of recognition in the National Merit program. Students who score in the top one-half of 1 percent on the PSAT taken in the junior year, the qualifying test for National Merit, are semifinalists, slots for which operate on a state-by-state quota system (a topic for another time). Those who score among the top 50,000 students nationally (approximately the top 3 percent of test takers) but do not qualify as semifinalists receive the commended student recognition.

Miyares has taken up the mantle for a group of TJ parents who are claiming that the failure to notify their children of their designation as a commended student has harmed them in the college admissions process. In a press conference, Miyares talked about children denied their dreams and that the failure may constitute a civil rights violation. But is that the case?

I know that “unpack” is one of those words that has become a cliché and everyone is tired of, but there’s a lot to unpack here.

It’s unclear whether this was an administrative oversight or a deliberate decision to avoid sharing the information, and that makes a difference. Intent is a key factor in making judgments about the ethical implications of a situation. I saw one claim that National Merit may have sent the package with the letters of commendation with insufficient postage, delaying its receipt. In philosophy Occam’s razor is a principle that one should always look for the simple explanation first, and just as a doctor might want to rule out obvious diagnoses before looking for the rare disease found only on hospital shows, we should make sure that this is not a case of simple error or oversight.

There is also some irony in that this is an issue at TJ (several other Fairfax County public schools have been named as guilty as well). TJ had 131 National Merit semifinalists this year, almost 30 percent of the senior class. To put that in context, only one other high school in the country had more (Stuyvesant High School in New York City), and TJ has in its senior class more semifinalists than 14 states. Given that number, putting too much emphasis on the 240 seniors who were recognized as commended students runs the risk of creating a three-tiered student body with regard to National Merit. I have never been to TJ (where the average SAT score according to the school profile is 1531—yes, you read that right), but are commended students picked on by semifinalists? And what about the approximately 80 students who don’t qualify for either? I am not defending the failure to dispense the recognition, only pointing out that TJ is far from a normal school.

I learned early in my career as a counselor that the issue presented by a disgruntled parent is rarely the real issue, and I suspect that is true here. The focus on the National Merit issue is being seen as evidence that Thomas Jefferson (the school, not the president) is abandoning its roots as an elitist school in its quest to embrace an equity agenda. Attorney General Miyares’s investigation seems to be much more about the change in TJ’s admissions process away from admissions testing in order to diversify the student body, which is approximately two-thirds Asian American. Those of us who are cynics, or rather realists, may wonder how much of this is a real issue as opposed to political theater.

“Ethical College Admissions” is not interested in litigating the cultural wars but rather looking at the broader underlying questions. There are several that have not been addressed sufficiently.

The first is whether the students affected have been harmed or discriminated against. Several articles have mentioned that they were unable to list “commended student” on early college applications. But that assumes that colleges value National Merit recognition. That is debatable with regard to semifinalist status, but if there are colleges that see being a National Merit commended student as a deciding factor in admission, I’d like them to contact me and let me know. Being a commended student is not meaningless, but it’s also not particularly meaningful. I was a commended student years ago when the National Merit exam wasn’t tied to the PSAT (it apparently changed a year later), and it’s unlikely that I will list that honor on my résumé—or my tombstone.

The second question is, should it be a school’s job to inform National Merit recipients? National Merit has always been behind the curve when it comes to technology. Long after all colleges had moved to online applications and typewriters had all but disappeared, the National Merit application remained a paper application requiring a typewriter.

There has to be a way for National Merit to inform students directly about recognition. The obvious one is to notify students using their accounts with National Merit’s PSAT partner, the College Board. The College Board informs students of their PSAT scores by sending them an email. What can’t semifinalists and commended students be informed the same way?

This is part of a larger issue where agencies like the College Board and National Merit want schools to do their work for them. The College Board has pushed the school-day SAT, and I expect it will want the new digital SAT to be administered through schools. But the College Board has in the past refused to pay those who proctor during the school day because the proctor is already being paid by the school and a stipend would constitute double dipping. But test proctors, and school officials expected to dispense National Merit certificates, are agents of the College Board or the National Merit program, not of their schools. If you want those of us in schools to do your work, you should be compensating us.

The final larger issue, and the hardest to navigate, has to do with the nature of merit. George Will wrote a column about the TJ situation in which he stated, “The opposite of an equitable society is a meritocracy.”

But are equity and merit at odds? Both are important values (not everyone will agree), and there is a tension between them. They are also concepts that can arouse political emotions.

The challenge may be in how those concepts are defined. There are certainly those who are suspicious of equity as a way to water down merit, but equity doesn’t mean equality of result but rather equality of opportunity. Much of what we have traditionally referred to as merit is really privilege in disguise. The National Merit program defined “merit” as how one does on one three-hour test, and we know that standardized testing correlates strongly with family income. Test scores measure merit imprecisely, and only in context. Two identical scores don’t mean the same thing if one student spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on test prep and the other didn’t. Which of the two is more meritorious?

That tension between merit and equity will be one of the most important philosophical societal issues of our time. Finding the right balance between the two is what we should be investigating.

Next Story

Written By

Found In

More from Views