FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va.—Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin was outraged over delays by high schools in notifying “commended” students of their National Merit Award, as four more schools reported the same issue on Friday, increasing the school count in Fairfax County to seven in total.
“What started off as allegations of one of our most prominent schools has revealed a systematic problem,” Youngkin said in a tweet on Jan. 14. “Now, there are news reports that seven schools in NOVA [northern Virginia] have delayed notifying Virginia students of their academic achievements. This is unacceptable.”
Students who score among the top 3 percent in Preliminary SAT (PSAT) tests obtain the “Commended Student” accolade, which for some may open doors to special scholarship programs provided by corporate and business sponsors. However, high schools are charged by the National Merit Scholarship Corp. program, which runs the test, with relaying the news to award recipients.
The issue was first discovered at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), which is ranked No. 1 nationwide. Soon after, two more high schools, including Virginia’s No. 2 Langley High School, reported the same issue. Then, on Friday, four more joined the group.
At an interview with ABC7 on Sunday, Youngkin connected the delay issue with the overarching equity approach of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS).
“The reality is that we have a superintendent in Fairfax schools who has explicitly stated that her top objective is equal outcomes for all students, regardless of the price,” Youngkin told ABC7. “Now we know the price includes paying $450,000 to a liberal consultant to come in and teach the administrators in Fairfax County how to do this.
“What it appears happened is that principals in schools decided that they were going to systematically withhold accolades and a path to college admission and scholarships from high-performing students.”
Equity and ‘Equal Outcomes’
In November, FCPS hired Performance Fact Inc., an Oakland, California-based contractor, to develop an “equity-centered strategic plan” (pdf) emphasizing “the equity imperative: equitable access and equal outcomes.” The contract was for $455,000.
“The goal is equal outcomes,” Performance Fact president Mutiu Fagbayi said at a meeting with another school board promoting his company’s ideas. “And what we need to be equitable about is the access. In a very real sense, many districts struggle with this. To have true equity, you have to be purposefully unequal when it comes to resources. I want to say that again because most districts struggle with that. To have an equity-centered organization, we have to have the courage and the willingness to be purposefully unequal when it comes to opportunities and access.”
In response to a Langley High School parent’s question about a contract with Performance Fact, FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid replied during a Jan. 10 meeting: “The contract you’re referring to was not about equity work, it was about strategic planning work, obviously, justice-centered strategic planning work. But it’s also the development of the work with the community, as well as the implementation of the plan next year.”
At the same meeting, Reid circumvented a question from a father seeking clarification on whether equity meant “equal outcomes.”
“I think that the [term] ‘equal outcomes’ has been misunderstood, and I think what we’re really talking about is that each and every student has the ability to achieve their unique potential. And there are many, many students who are not able to do that without equitable resources and access,” the superintendent said.
Reid also denied that equity goals lowered standards. “Equity is not lowering expectations. It’s about maintaining high expectations and providing high support,” she told parents at Langley. “[E]quity has nothing to do with delaying or not getting [award] certificates on time.”
Many parents at TJHSST and Langley, whose children’s college applications went in before the award notification was received, said that equity belonged in the conversation. So did Youngkin.
“They [the schools] have a maniacal focus on equal outcomes for all students at all costs. And at the heart of the American dream is excelling, is advancing, is stretching and recognizing that we have students that have different capabilities,” the governor said in an ABC7 interview. “Some students have the ability to perform at one level, others need more help, and we have to allow students to run as fast as they can to dream the biggest dreams they can possibly dream and then go get them.”
Youngkin had asked Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares to investigate TJHSST over the delay. Later on Jan. 9, Miyares expanded the probe to FCPS’s entire system. FCPS has also launched its own investigation with a Richmond law firm. However, parents question whether the law firm would write any report against its client’s interests.
At the Langley meeting, Reid said FCPS was responding to the issue with “all hands on deck” and had pulled central office staffers to call the college admissions office to inform them of students’ national merit awards. However, she didn’t comment on parents’ request that colleges confirm their addition of award information in recipients’ applications.
Parents Want to Make Decisions for Their Children
Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax County) said in a tweet on Jan. 16 that the PSAT commendation was not considered a “high-merit achievement among most students” in TJHSST and that media had unnecessarily dramatized the delay.
Of the 50,000 annual award recipients, 34,000 receive commendations but do not “continue in the competition for National Merit Scholarships,” the award website explains.
A Langley mother whose son was affected by the delay had a rebuttal to those who said the merit notification delay was not a big deal during her meeting with Reid on Jan. 10.
She said the core issue was that parents were denied the right to make decisions regarding their child’s future.
“I think what we’re all sad about is that somebody put that [award letter] in a drawer and shut it because they didn’t think it was a big deal. That’s not their call to make. I’m tired of them [deciding] for us,” she said.
“That’s really the issue here. It’s not whether or not [the award would make a difference in college applications]; it’s that I want to be the one making a decision for my child’s future,” she added. “The fact that we were denied the right to know that we have this award: that’s a big deal.”