A study of invidious racial discrimination in admissions at Thomas Jefferson High School For Science and Technology: Monty Python and Franz Kafka meet a probit regression.

Author:Cohen, Lloyd

In the mid-1980s, the state of Virginia established the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (hereinafter TJ) in the suburbs of Washington D.C. as a magnet secondary school for the mathematically gifted and inclined. Each year the school admits slightly more than four-hundred freshmen from the three thousand who apply out of the twenty thousand available in the region. (1) It is the process by which those students are selected that is the subject of this study.

TJ is a remarkable school. As a summary illustration of its intellectual excellence, consider that in twelve of the last thirteen years TJ has led the nation in the number of National Merit Semi-Finalists. (2) But focusing exclusively on the intellectual kudos earned by its students seriously understates TJ's success and attraction. The school's culture is one of civility, respect, and moral virtue. Unlike most other public high schools, property and person are completely secure within its walls. Students routinely leave valuable equipment resting on their lockers and find it undisturbed when they return hours, or even days, later. Nor is this school merely an intellectual and moral hothouse. The school is also renowned for its musical and athletic accomplishments. In 2002, for example, the boys' cross country team won the state championship, while the girls' team finished second, and since their inception in 1989, both the boys' and girls' crew teams have won numerous medals in various championship events. (3)

What is the root of this success? To begin, we can reject the hypothesis that it is a great infusion of funds that is the cause. (4) Expenditure per student at TJ is only slightly more than that at the average conventional high school in the region. (5) Indeed, in part because of the age and size of the facility, TJ actually has less in the way of physical resources than most of its neighbors.

While the faculty deserves some credit, its role should not be overstated. Although the high quality of the student body makes TJ an attractive place to teach, the faculty are, for the most part, neither chosen nor rewarded by criteria markedly different from those that prevail at any other northern Virginia high school. (6) Indeed, in the early years immediately following TJ's conversion from a neighborhood high school to a magnet school, there was little change in the makeup of the faculty.

The lion's share of the credit for the success of TJ's students rests with the students themselves. It is they who have made TJ what it is. Arriving on campus with an abundance of intellectual aptitude and good moral character, they create a culture that nourishes and reinforces those virtues.

For those with the requisite talent and character, the opportunity to attend TJ is a great privilege. It provides an intellectually, morally, and socially enriched environment. To avail themselves of this privilege however, selected students and their families pay a considerable price. First, because TJ draws its students from a wide geographic area, most students endure a long commute and have difficulty maintaining school friendships outside of the building. Second, it is believed--perhaps correctly--by some parents that it is somewhat more difficult for TJ students to gain admission to elite universities than it is for equivalent students from ordinary suburban high schools. But, despite these drawbacks, TJ remains a very attractive choice, and each year, close to three thousand (7) of the brightest eighth graders in the region apply for the four-hundred-plus slots available. (8)

The great success of TJ's students might lead one to conclude that its admissions regime is a finely tuned machine designed to pluck out the best of the best. That conclusion would be unwarranted. Given the large and intellectually well endowed population on which it may draw, almost any admissions process that was not systematically perverse would yield an outstanding student body. But, that does not mean that the admissions decision is of no moment. For the student chosen--assuming he is a good fit--attending TJ is a valuable privilege. To deny him that privilege for some reason other than merit would be a grave and invidious act of discrimination. In addition, finding students who are best able to partake in the culture provides a real benefit to all the others; each member of the community adds to and supports the ethos of the institution.


    The case I shall make, in the pages that follow, is that TJ's admission process, formed by the push and pull of social, political, and--oh yes--even intellectual forces, has evolved into a wasteful, convoluted, inefficient Rube Goldberg-like mechanism that is designed to admit the most intellectually gifted students in the region subject to two nested constraints. The first constraint is that substantially more African-American students must be admitted than would be chosen on merit alone. The second--because to expressly voice and directly apply the first constraint would be offensive to the assumption of equal intellectual endowment and the principle of equal treatment, and would also be in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and of the 1964 Civil Rights Act--is that the first constraint must be satisfied sub rosa. That is, the admissions process must be facially neutral and appear to be based on factors that bear a rational relation to intellectual merit. The result is a process that is best conceived of as something concocted by a mind that vacillates between the dark dreams of Franz Kafka and the comic absurdity of Monty Python.

    Do not misunderstand me. I do not believe that anyone has actually designed the process in a self-conscious attempt to promote this goal while accommodating these constraints. Rather, the current regime is the result of something akin to an evolutionary process. Much as the unremitting demands of a market selects and reforms the firms within it, such that those that survive are economically efficient, so, in an analogous process, the goals and constraints subject to which the TJ admissions regime has evolved have given it a grotesque form.

    The political pressures that bear on the admissions regime are, at least in part, a matter of public record. Over the last several years there have been a series of pronouncements by the superintendent of the Fairfax County Schools, Mr. Daniel Domenech, as well as public hearings before the Fairfax County School Board (hereinafter FCSB) discussing the problem of less than proportional enrollment of African-Americans at TJ, and possible solutions. (9) On the other side a substantial number of Fairfax County residents, parents of school age children in particular, have been vociferous in their efforts to prevent discrimination. Because of these efforts, and because express consideration of race is considered ethically and legally unacceptable, the proposals put forth and enacted by the FCSB have generally focused on creating a geographic quota that would serve the same purpose. Given the demographics of Fairfax County and the very high minimum standard for admission, no geographic quota has a realistic prospect of materially changing the ethnic makeup of the student body at TJ. There are no middle schools in the county that are so overwhelmingly African-American that merely assigning a quota to each school would likely yield many African-Americans who meet the minimum standards. Indeed, it could very well have a reverse and perverse effect, in that those African-American students with the greatest prospect of admission may attend over-represented schools.

    For the class of 2006, the political compromise approved by the FCSB was that, after the committee process described below was followed, and after four-hundred and twenty students were selected in the usual manner, the oversight committee was then empowered to select up to an additional thirty students from the pool of eight hundred previously identified qualified applicants who attended underrepresented middle schools. (10) Though the implicit purpose of this grant of authority was to increase African-American representation, of the twenty-nine additional students admitted under this program, only one was African-American. (11) The principle reason for the absence of additional African-American students in this group is that nine of the eleven African-American students who were eligible for admission by finishing in the top 800 on the index had already been accepted. (12)

    While the express proposal of a geographic quota was both feckless and largely unsuccessful, the battle to undermine the principle of race-neutral admissions had already been won. The story to be told is how the use of an elaborate committee structure--staffed sympathetically, given broad discretion to make subjective judgments, informed of the race of the applicants, deprived of vital information, and signaled as to their true purpose--invidiously discriminates among candidates on the basis of race.


    For most of its history the TJ admissions process has had the same basic structure. The heart of the process is a two-step drill. Step one consists of the construction of an index score for each applicant based principally on objective criteria. This step cuts the field from close to three thousand to eight hundred. Step two consists of screening by an elaborate set of committees. These committees, employing more subjective criteria, cull the over four-hundred matriculants from the eight-hundred highest scorers on the index. (13)

    In the first stage, the applicants take a customized version of the Specialized High School Admissions Test, provided by the American Guidance Services. (14) The exam consists of fifty math questions and seventy verbal questions. The index score is constructed by summing: (1) the number of correct verbal answers; (2) 1.4...

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