Below is my column in the Hill on the litigation over the new admissions policy at the elite Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, Virginia. The school board ended the use of an admissions test in favor of a “holistic approach” to achieve greater diversity at the school. Notably, this week, the board defended its policy before the Supreme Court by insisting that it was not “race balancing” and that the new policy is entirely “race neutral.” However, the board replaced a race-blind, merit-based system for the express purpose of achieving greater diversity. Indeed, one board member declared “in looking at what has happened to George Floyd . . . we must recognize the unacceptable numbers of such things as the unacceptable numbers of African Americans that have been accepted to TJ.”
The Virginia Attorney General (and various other states) have filed to challenge those assertions in a potentially important case that would allow the Court to consider allegedly discriminatory admissions practices and polices not just on the college but the high school levels.
Here is the column:
A small, exclusive public high school in Northern Virginia is emerging this month as a major battleground over free speech and academic integrity. It began with a decision to drop admissions standards to achieve greater diversity, and now there is a fair possibility that this small high school will be the subject of a Supreme Court challenge with far-reaching legal, educational and social implications.
Known as “TJ,” the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Va., is routinely ranked as one of the nation’s best public high schools, a feeder school for top universities around the world. It is the source of pride for many of us in the county, a school that was reserved for brilliant students who are able to take extremely advanced courses and perform university-level research.
A couple of years ago, activists objected that TJ was overwhelmingly Asian and white. While admission was based objectively on scholastic performance (including an entrance exam), a group formed to promote dropping such threshold standards to attain greater diversity. They succeeded, and the Fairfax School Board killed the entrance exam, adopting a “holistic review” approach that includes a “student portrait sheet” and consideration of a student’s background as “experience factors.”
Some of the TJ parents opposing the change challenged it in court, and federal judge Claude Hilton ruled in favor of those parents that the new admissions policy was racial discrimination targeting Asian American students. That ruling was stayed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which allowed the school board to continue its new admissions policy. However, the case has attracted the attention of the Supreme Court, which is considering two major college admissions cases, which also allege racial discrimination against Asian students. Chief Justice John Roberts has asked the school district to respond to the discrimination claims and explain why the Court should not add the case to its docket.
The TJ case is important not just to constitutional but educational standards in America. For years, meritocracy itself has been under attack as racist. Even science and mathematics have been declared to be “inherently racist” or “colonized.”
At the same time, school districts are closing gifted and talented programs over their alleged lack of diversity — leaving top-performing students with fewer options in the public school systems. These moves achieve a bizarre equity by eliminating merit-based distinctions and opportunities.
And there is a growing movement to end the use of standardized testing to achieve greater diversity. Last month Cal State dropped standardized testing “to level the playing field” for minority students.
Last year, University of California President Janet Napolitano also caved to this movement. California voters have repeatedly refused to allow the state to engage in affirmative action in admissions. Napolitano then moved to just do away with standardized testing for admissions, which would make admission challenges more difficult while enhancing diversity numbers. She assembled a handpicked Standardized Testing Task Force in 2019 to study the issue, but that task force found the opposite: Standardized testing is the most accurate single indicator of college performance, including for minority students. In other words, it helped students find institutions where they were most likely to thrive. Napolitano thanked the task force and then overrode those conclusions by ending the use of the standardized college tests.
Even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) seemed to yield to this movement during the pandemic by dropping the use of standardized testing requirements. However, this week, MIT reversed that decision and reinstated the use of the tests as key to preserving its elite status as an educational institution.
MIT has decided to hold firm on the academic standards that made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world; TJ achieved that distinction among high schools by maintaining the same elite entry standards. Now, however, it appears TJ will be “leveled down” to achieve “equity.”
As more advanced programs are eliminated, gifted students will find their own advancement stymied or slowed. Left unchallenged, some will lose interest while others are less likely to achieve the same levels of distinction.
Liberal activists aren’t the only ones celebrating this trend in American education. Foreign competitors like China can only rejoice at seeing the United States decapitate its top academic programs. Our enemies must hope that meritocracy will be replaced by mediocrity in science and other fields as the world economy becomes more and more competitive.
The real loss will be felt by students of all races.
It is possible to achieve diversity in these programs, but it is not as easy — or as fast — as just leveling down entry standards. We can focus on underperforming public schools to better prepare minority students. However, with continuing dismal performances of public educators in major cities, that’s not a welcome approach to many in the education or politics professions. It’s easier to reduce entry standards than it is to elevate performance rates. Indeed, Oregon recently achieved equity in graduation rates by simply suspending the need to be proficient in reading, math, and writing. Done: Instant equity.
The Court’s consideration of admissions challenges at Harvard and the University of North Carolina may bring greater clarity for higher education. However, the same challenged admissions practices are now being implemented in high schools, which serve as the feeders for college admissions. The Court needs to establish its own “holistic approach” and establish a clear and coherent standard for admissions throughout our educational system.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.