18 high schools in Virginia withheld academic awards

The scandal has grown to 18 schools in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. A new front in the academic war on merit.

The scandal involves National Merit “Commendations,” a lower-tier of recognition within the well-known National Merit Scholarship Program. Their website explains,

The late-September timing is significant. The award is something that students can mention in their college applications, with early deadlines coming in October and November. However, unlike the more prestigious and rare designations of “semifinalist” and “finalist,” the Program depends on local high schools to deliver the commendation letters.

The scandal began when one high school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology withheld the awards. The high school is ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News out of 24,000 public high schools. The schools has an Alexandria, VA, address, but is operated by the Fairfax County public school district.

Admission to the school is on a competitive basis. By ethnicity, the student body is majority Asian (54 percent), but down from 73 percent the prior year, as the school is being sued for racial discrimination. One parent is quoted:

“They basically put in place a purge of Asian students,” [Asra] Nomani said. “They need to go back to an admissions process that accepted students based on merit alone.” 

The story was broken by City Journal, which discovered that Thomas Jefferson High had been withholding these awards from students for years. The Journal reports:

For years, two administrators at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) have been withholding notifications of National Merit awards from the school’s families, most of them Asian, thus denying students the right to use those awards to boost their college-admission prospects and earn scholarships. This episode has emerged amid the school district’s new strategy of “equal outcomes for every student, without exception.”

The revelation in City Journal launched an investigation by the Commonwealth into the practice. Since then, 17 other schools in Northern Virginia, in four counties, have admitted to withholding awards, so far. US News ranks 333 public high schools in Virginia, all 18 of those implicated appear in their rankings, including three of the state’s top five.

The Washington, D.C. suburbs are populated by those working for the federal government and related industries. Many choose to live in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, rather than the District itself, to take advantage of lower taxes and higher-quality public schools.

The result has been one of the highest concentrations of wealth in America. Measured by per household annual income, Loudoun County ranks No. 1 in the United States, at more than $147,000. (Loudoun County has been the scene of innumerable scandals in its public schools).

Fairfax County ranks 5th nationally in income, with Stafford County at 19th and Prince William County at 24th. Of the eight wealthiest counties in America, all are in the D.C. suburbs or Silicon Valley in California. San Francisco itself, ranks a mere 12th.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin says he will propose a bill to the state legislature to require schools to notify students of academic awards.