Nadiyah Williams had heard of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The Fairfax County Public school, ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News & World Report, was about as famous as a high school can get. But as a student in nearby Prince William County school district—whose top school is ranked lower than the top 10 Fairfax County schools—she had no reason to think she might one day attend the selective institution.
Even so, Nadiyah, 14, loved studying science. The daughter of a mechanic, in her earliest years she’d sit nearby as her father tinkered with his tools.
“I would watch my dad in the garage, fixing his car, or adding things to it to make it more powerful,” she says. All through elementary school, she wanted to do the same sort of hands-on work in her classes. Naturally brilliant, she started attending STEM specialty programs in the summer. In fourth and fifth grade, she joined her robotics club. For middle school, she applied to an advanced school in the sciences, and joined a program that taught her how to rebuild computers, giving them away for free. She took first place in her school’s science fair with a medical science project that included a home-built bacteria incubator.
But Thomas Jefferson, legendary for being the first high school to host a supercomputer and for feats like launching an actual satellite into space, still felt a world away. Even when Nadiyah learned that as a magnet school, it was designed to accept students like her from other nearby districts, the fact that no one at her school guided her toward applying for “TJ”—the shorthand used by many within its reach—was discouraging.
“Within our school district, there’s not a lot of resources to get to TJ,” Nadiyah says. As famous as the Alexandria school is for its education, it’s equally infamous for being really hard to get into. A typical freshman class has a little under 500 students, but TJ regularly has an admissions rate lower than all but the most selective colleges (19 percent the year Nadiyah was eligible to apply, just 2 points higher than nearby Georgetown University).
The pressure to attend the school in Fairfax can be immense, as the school’s best-in-country ranking is a selling point for real estate in the entire county. The school district has a complex pipeline structure leading to TJ, where top students test into an advanced and exclusive “gifted” path as early as the second grade. The school’s hyper-selectivity has also created a small cottage industry of test prep centers designed to train kids to tackle Thomas Jefferson’s admission exam, in the same way they’d prepare to ace the SAT.
But despite how imposing the school seemed, Nadiyah’s mother encouraged her. A life-changing education sat just a bus ride away. Why not take the shot?
“I would regret it if I didn’t apply,” Nadiyah says. “I was like, I might as well just do it. Because I want the challenge of actually applying.”
When she found out that, for the first time in the school’s history, the standardized test had been canceled and the written exam moved back, she didn’t think much of it—just more time to study. She was only vaguely aware that the seemingly simple change in the admissions process was actually a big step in a pitched battle over whether, and how, to change what made Thomas Jefferson seem so far away for many students like her.
As Nadiyah practiced math problems for her test, two vocal interest groups were at war over whether students from historically underrepresented locations like Prince William County should be given greater access to the school through a modified admissions process. The battle would be played out on the grounds outside the school, in the simmering national cable news cauldron, and ultimately in court, as accusations of racism flew back and forth between the two minority-led groups. All to answer one question: Who decides who gets to attend TJ?
Leading one side of the debate: the Coalition for TJ, composed primarily of parents of current and potential students of Thomas Jefferson. Their concerns: A new admissions process could lower academic standards, and deserving students would be denied acceptance. Most of all, they believe the changes are discriminatory against the school’s mostly Asian-American student population.
On the other: school alumni, spearheaded by the TJ Alumni Action Group, who want to combat perceived inequity and a severe lack of diversity in the school’s admissions and culture by broadening the admissions pool.
For both groups, the stakes are not just for local students like Nadiyah. Whoever wins the debate could set an example for schools throughout the country, at a time when selective schools from New York to California are re-examining their admissions policies.
“TJ being the No. 1 high school in the nation, it’s such an amazing opportunity to make it an example for the nation,” says Makya Renee Little, president of the TJ Alumni Action Group, or TJAAG. “So if we can really get this right, realizing that other high-stakes testing schools have their eyes on us, where we can even collaborate with those schools and come up with really what’s best, not just for our local communities, but for our nation—wow, how powerful would that be?”
The contentious debate centers on one seemingly simple plan for increasing diversity at the school: a lottery.
A Problem with Two Solutions
Thomas Jefferson High School has infamously lacked diversity for years. In the ’90s, that meant a vast majority of white students. In more recent years, it has meant a mostly Asian-American student body. But the nagging issue has been a lack of African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students. At one point in the early 2000s, the school was subject to a formal complaint by the NAACP, and yet the school’s admissions remained largely the same.
In 2020, during the summer after George Floyd’s death, the Virginia state government announced that it would be requiring schools to step up their efforts in diversity. Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand’s response was fairly simple. To create a new, broader admissions pool, he proposed eliminating the $100 application fee, the standardized test, and teacher recommendations in favor of a “merit lottery.” The district would be carved into regions, and each region would be given 70 seats in the incoming TJ class. As long as you applied and had the minimum required GPA of 3.5, you would have as good a chance at getting in as any other student from your group.
The plan represented a radical shift away from TJ’s approach of evaluating ability regardless of context toward ensuring that all regions would be represented. To take effect, Brabrand’s approach would have to be approved by a majority of the school board before the next admissions period. The debate began.
“Based on the research, we absolutely feel that a merit lottery would be a better sampling, if you will, or produce more equitable outcomes, than a holistic review where everything is filtered through a person’s perception or experiences,” Little says. The TJ Alumni Action Group supports the merit lottery as a way of ensuring diversity. In their view, the system had, for years, produced dismally low representation of underprivileged students. Notoriously, the proportion of African Americans in 2020’s freshman class was “too small for reporting,” which meant less than a handful had been admitted.
For Little, the admissions system needs to be gutted. Teachers can be biased, so recommendations should be eliminated. Test design can be biased, and wealthy families can put their children through one of many test-prep centers in the county to get a leg up, so the exam has to go, too. Rather than allow potentially racially driven subjectivity into the process, Little trusts the objectivity of randomness.
“As a mother of children of color, at this point, we trust random chance over systems,” Little says. “So if my child, they enter the lottery, and they don’t make it, OK. I can trust that. That makes me feel like they had a fair shot, versus having someone who’s biased.”
It’s not only about an equal shot at an education. Part of the admissions debate is about what TJ should be. Diversity in the admissions process could be a way to treat what some TJAAG members see as a culture at the school that affords racist behavior—which, in turn, discourages minority students from applying. Little, an alumna of the school in the ’90s, describes feeling uncomfortable as one of the only African-American students, put in a spotlight during history lessons and scorned during science classes. She was on occasion subject to overtly racist incidents; her friend was told to “go back to the jungle” during an argument in the lunchroom.
Little also sees the school as unnecessarily stressful and competitive, driven by an ideology of meritocracy as students strive toward superiority, which can result in unhealthy behavior. Students at TJ are known for skipping sleep to complete their massive amount of homework. She wants to see that change through a sense of gratitude and luck that would come from the lottery process, an understanding that no one chooses the situation that they’re born into. Conversely, rejected students would feel less judgment and despair at not getting in.
“It was Jeff Jones, the previous principal of TJ, who said he would rather students believe that they were unlucky versus unworthy,” Little says. “No eighth-grader can choose where they live, no eighth-grader can choose the income of their family. So how are you going to put those two against each other and say, ‘This student has more merit’?”
Students who trained for the test, and would be potentially left out as a result of a lottery, would also benefit in the long run, says Little.
“Should those students have had to take all of that test prep? They should not have. As long as you have that test in place, you’re going to have people feeling pressure to do that,” Little says. “So it really helps them all. Even though it may not feel like it does in the moment, because you spent the past two, three years preparing, but you should have been playing soccer, you should have been baking, you know, you should have been being a kid. And that’s what we are also hoping to address, which is the mental health of students in Northern Virginia, so that they don’t feel as though they have to cram all of this information in order to have a chance at a good life.“
TJAAG met with school board members to get the lottery installed after Brabrand’s initial proposal. But their opponent was already a step ahead of them.
Photo by Antonio Martin Photography
Defining What’s Fair
As the demographic group of students who were in the current majority at the school, Asian Americans were the cohort most likely to shrink under the proposal. As a result, a large group of parents banded together to create an advocacy group that would protest the policy as racist against Asian Americans, while arguing that the randomized admissions process would hurt the quality of education at TJ.
The Coalition for TJ, founded by TJ parents Glenn Miller, an attorney from McLean, and former Wall Street Journal reporter and media personality Asra Nomani, began a media campaign to prevent the lottery from being adopted. Their goal, in summary: Keep the standardized test.
Nomani, fellow parent Harry Jackson, and other Coalition members made the case in media both locally and nationally, frequently augmenting their criticism of the school district with other Republican touchstones, such as critical race theory, on conservative platforms like Fox News. Alongside them, a group of Coalition members, led by Jackson and Himanshu Verma, sought to take leadership of the school’s PTA, with Jackson running for PTA president and Verma for treasurer.
Through the course of their campaign, they created a steady stream of news reports in Northern Virginia. They wrote Washington Post editorials decrying the potential end of the school (subsequently answered by TJAAG members). They held a self-described “memorial service” for the school outside its walls. The PTA president was seemingly deposed after a vote by Coalition members, only to be reinstated after the state PTA ruled that the Coalition didn’t have that capability (she has since resigned).
For Miller, the driving point behind their efforts is that the admissions change is reflective of a deeper rejection of merit occurring in schools across the U.S.
“We think that this anti-test movement is part of a larger effort to try to eliminate academic distinctions and eliminate merit and education and achieve forced equality. Which, if you read de Tocqueville and Democracy in America—if you read any number of critiques of the French Revolution and other efforts over the last few hundred years to force equality—they all end badly,” Miller says. “I wish I could play Major League Baseball, but it’s never gonna happen, no matter how hard I practice. People are different. And the problem is, when movements that are based on forced equality and a preconception that everybody is exactly the same, when reality strikes them in the face, those groups have historically tended to become authoritarian. You can see it with hundreds of years of forced equality movements tending to run either toward economic ruin or bloodshed.”
The Coalition argues that the meritocratic approach—the test—is the only way everyone, regardless of race, can be on fair footing. Grades are relative and can change across the different middle schools considerably, as quasi-magnet middle schools with advanced programs have traditionally supplied the bulk of TJ’s student population. As a result, some students from standard middle schools may be coming in a year or two behind in math or science courses compared to their magnet middle school peers, and have to do some serious catching up.
If the school wants to make changes, it needs to do so through a deeper look at structures and resources, argues the Coalition. Miller points to the campaign of Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, who has pledged to create more magnet schools like TJ. Verma wants a better, less preppable test, and Jackson wants more opportunities to enter the gifted track toward the advanced middle school programs. Students’ futures in the district are often determined in second grade, when most students are tested for gifted status.
“You [need to] provide a second chance for testing in some of these centers because, kids, you don’t know what they’re going through when they’re testing them in second grade,” Jackson says. “If you do testing on a more frequent basis, you can identify those late bloomers.”
For Jackson and the Coalition, the question of TJ’s future is also about the future of Fairfax County. Schools are always a factor in home-buying, and the presence of the No. 1-ranked school in the nation is a big selling point for real estate. It’s also about industry. The school attracts the families of driven students, who go on to become brilliant scientists, engineers, and innovators, who want to live near their families. Thus, top tech companies like Amazon, the theory goes, are willing to come to them.
“What’s horrible about it is, by weakening the academic system within Fairfax County, it’s going to hurt. I don’t think they understand that the school system is part of an ecosystem. It affects property values and impacts what businesses move here,” Jackson says. “We moved here because of their great schools. Without the schools, people won’t want to live here anymore. And it’s not like we would be worse off in Hawaii, because at least they have great weather. We have highways and traffic, and we’re in a swamp.”
While the Coalition acknowledges the role of test prep, it contests the idea that high-scorers inordinately benefited from programs that can cost up to several thousand dollars.
“I think that wealthy people can generally, you know, afford to get what they want more than other people can,” says Erin Wilcox, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents the Coalition. “[But] what I’ve heard from a lot of TJ parents is that they didn’t pay for test prep. They did the book, or they did the cheap test prep, or they spent hours around the kitchen table with their kids and flashcards. So they’re really rankled by this idea that they’ve all just bought their way into TJ, because so many of them, you know, did not.”
Wilcox is representing the Coalition in its suit against the school. The Coalition’s arguments culminated in it partnering with her foundation to force the school district to adopt a new plan that they consider more meritocratic.
Wilcox hopes to ultimately take the case to the Supreme Court and receive a decision that explicitly forbids schools from involving racial diversity in public school admissions, what she considers a gray area in legal doctrine.
TJ Goes to Class
As the argument unfolded, Brabrand changed tack. By October, he offered a new proposal. This one still scrapped the teacher recommendations and the standardized test, but also abandoned the lottery. A holistic review would measure each student’s likelihood of success while giving credit for factors that evinced underrepresentation, such as coming from a home where English is the second language. The big difference would be that the top 1.5 percent of students of each middle school in terms of GPA would automatically be admitted to TJ. The class would also be expanded by 70 students to 550.
It was this GPA-driven plan, focused on geographic diversity, that was ultimately accepted by the school board. And when the class of 2025 was admitted, the demographic numbers resulting from the admissions process were in line with the school’s apparent desired increase in diversity. Black students increased from 1 percent to 7 percent, Hispanics from 3 percent to 11 percent, and economically disadvantaged students from 0.62 percent to 25 percent. Asian-American students decreased from 73 percent to 53 percent, the only group to decrease, but remained a majority.
So did TJ ultimately go with the best admissions system possible? That’s best answered by looking at the results of schools in similar situations. The question of the purpose of selective public schools, and how to successfully diversify them, is one that’s playing out across the nation in multiple major metro areas. While changing admissions processes is historically difficult (both New York and DC have struggled to diversify their top selective high schools), there are a few examples of higher-learning institutions that have increased diversity without a significant drop in academic quality.
The nonpareil example is the Chicago selective school system, which sets aside a certain number of seats in its elite magnet schools by socioeconomic tiers, in a related, but not identical, system to TJ’s geographic-diversity approach.
Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow with The Century Foundation and one of the designers of the Chicago selective school system’s admissions program, supports TJ’s changes. For Kahlenberg, overcoming adversities like economic hardship demonstrates innate abilities that could help a student thrive when given the resources that TJ offers.
“Broadly speaking, the approach that TJ is taking is similar to Chicago’s, to the extent that they are identifying talent not simply by academic criteria, but also by including the obstacles that students have had to overcome in life,” Kahlenberg says. “There was a question when we were working to devise the [Chicago] plan. Would low-income students be academically prepared enough to succeed? The answer has been yes. These schools remain among the top-ranked schools in the entire state of Illinois, and there’s not been a problem with what’s called academic mismatch, where you’re admitting students that can’t do the work.”
For Kahlenberg, the jury is still out on whether TJ will maintain the exact level of academic excellence it had previously, due to one key detail. The Chicago plan’s socioeconomic tiers allowed it to keep their standardized test while ensuring diversity by counteracting expensive test prep by wealthy families. TJ simply eliminated the test.
“I will point out that Chicago did not abandon the test. So that is a difference between these two approaches. And to a certain extent, we will know more over time about whether that criticism has some validity for some students at TJ,” Kahlenberg says. “I think what TJ has done is riskier than Chicago’s plan, because Chicago kept the test. But it’s an open question as to whether every student will succeed, and I have no reason to think they won’t.”
The best case study of eliminating the test Kahlenberg can offer is in higher education, where the University of Texas at Austin stopped looking at SAT and ACT scores. “Those students have done well,” Kahlenberg says. “The distinction would be that TJ has been extremely competitive. And UT Austin is competitive. But not at the level of Thomas Jefferson.”
Still, the test isn’t the be-all-and-end-all for Kahlenberg. There’s a wealth of evidence that GPA is generally a better predictor of consistent academic success than test scores.
“If you look at the research on college GPA, the No. 1 predictor is always high school GPA. The second is SAT. We know that standardized tests only add a little bit of predictive validity,” says Joni Lakin, associate professor of educational studies at the University of Alabama, who has written about the TJ admissions process.
On top of that, Lakin says, at a selectivity rate of 17 percent, the likelihood is high that many students who previously would have been turned away would succeed just as well as many other students in the TJ environment because top institutions are often needlessly, even arbitrarily, selective.
It’s also important to remember that, much like elite colleges, selective high schools like TJ are often able to offer greater support services. TJ requires you to maintain above a C average to stay at the school, and yet it had a 100 percent graduation rate in 2020, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Ultimately, for Kahlenberg, the plan makes sense compared to the old system and the other proposals.
“Previously you had a system that resulted in very little diversity,” he says. “And then on the other extreme, you had a proposal that would admit students by lottery and that, even with a minimum GPA, would have been a huge departure from the meritocratic approach that has been central to TJ. So the ultimate plan honors both excellence and diversity in an elegant way.”
If problems arise or academics show signs of degrading, he says, it doesn’t make sense to cast away that progress. Tests can be brought back.
“I think that’s an argument for tweaking the system,” says Kahlenberg, “rather than ignoring diversity.”
Awaiting the Results
The Thomas Jefferson Alumni Action Group still prefers the lottery, but the school’s diversity numbers went up enough that they are willing to accept the current system for the time being. On the other hand, the Coalition for TJ maintains that the new system is racially discriminatory, claiming it uses geography as a proxy for race (though some members have expressed preference for the new plan over the lottery concept). A federal judge recently allowed their case to move forward, agreeing that the admissions change was “about race.”
But for one Prince William County student, the politics are far away.
“Surprisingly, [the coursework] is not as stressful as I thought it would be,” Nadiyah says. “Because everyone talking to me was telling me about the workload, it kind of mentally prepared me for what to expect.”
Nadiyah was accepted into the 2025 class, vying for a spot along with the largest number of Prince William County applicants ever: 89. She’s taken her interest in robotics to the next level, committing to studying nanotechnology as her core subject (at TJ, students select focuses, not unlike majors at universities). It’s not easy exactly, but she isn’t having trouble keeping up.
“I always thought that if TJ becomes too much for me, then I can go back to my base school in my county, so that I’m not overwhelming myself,” Nadiyah says. “But now that I’m actually there, I’m seeing that this is manageable. I can do all of this. It’s challenging, but it’s not to the point where it’s out of my reach.”