A levelling down agenda

An attempt to boost school diversity has lowered standards

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

‘TJ is in the news again,” a friend texted me. What would it be this time, I wondered. Winning the national Rubik’s Cube competition? Launching a satellite into space?

No, this time my high school alma mater had made headlines because of a cheating scandal — cheating not by the students, but the administrators.

School officials had admitted to concealing students’ National Merit awards from them, with the laughable excuse that they didn’t want to “hurt” the other students’ feelings. Parents were understandably outraged, as it is the school’s responsibility to notify families of these awards — ideally before college application deadlines.

More schools were duly implicated in the same deceptive practice. I didn’t follow the story closely. I didn’t want to face more evidence that the grievance complex had marched another mile on its campaign to tear down the unique institution that had fostered my early intellectual life.

I know of no other school quite like TJ, a publicly funded “magnet” school that draws top students from five counties in Virginia. During my time as a student there, the US News and World Report recognised it as the best high school in the country, and it continues to rank number one. Its combination of advanced and research-heavy coursework aims to fulfil the lofty purpose laid out in its official name: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

As a thirteen-year-old whose family had recently returned from military service overseas, I found a ready welcome in a student body assembled from far-flung locales to pursue a common purpose. To gain admission, I joined thousands of other 8th-graders in sitting for a standardised aptitude exam that tested verbal reasoning as well as skills in arithmetic, algebra, probability, statistics and geometry. This entrance exam has since become a battleground in the push to remake TJ in the image of racial equity.

On first inspection, the controversy over TJ’s ethnic make-up may come as a surprise. Ethnic minorities outnumber white students there, and many are the children of immigrants. These particular minorities do not fit the bill for the downtrodden in need of uplift and social intervention, however. They are the wrong colour: Chinese, Indian and other Asian groups, primarily. They also typically belong to stable, prosperous families with dual incomes, with the father in medicine and the mother in dentistry, for instance.

The hierarchies of intersectionality are all too familiar nowadays

The hierarchies of intersectionality are all too familiar nowadays, but at the time of my attendance the idol of diversity had yet to mutate from the vaguely humanist principle of learning through encountering difference into the postmodernist assault on power structures. I personally ran up against the oncoming sea change one day when my mother accompanied our Biology class on a field trip. While we collected data on spotted salamander eggs, our teacher lamented to my mother the absence of Hispanic or Latino students. She pointed to me.

Did the teacher discover that my mother’s family hails from Mexico, or that her mother first arrived in the United States when she married my grandfather? Anna Torres-Villarreal learned English by getting a job in the town library. 

Her story is my story. Her heritage shaped my childhood in ways that I continue to discover — from teaching us to love coconut flavour to inspiring my Spanish studies. If my teacher learned this history, it failed to convince him. Because I did not match his idea of what a Hispanic student looked like, I did not count towards the quota.

In the quest for the perfectly-toned student, school administration had already begun tinkering with the admissions process before I arrived. White students outperformed black and Hispanic students on the aptitude test, and Asians outperformed everyone. Efforts were duly made to water down this advantage by padding the selection criteria with qualitative assessments, such as personal essays and teacher recommendations.

This delicate manoeuvre was shipwrecked on the rock of reality. As a member of the TJ community, I witnessed over and over again that in the competition for select opportunities, elites are elite because they succeed at winning. Changing the rules makes little impact on the outcome, because they have mastered the art of playing by the rules to win the prize. Accordingly, the swing in emphasis from grades and test scores precipitated a slew of essay workshops, writing coaches, summer camps and how-to guides.

The application changed, and the applicants adapted. Tweaking the criteria did not level the playing field; it only switched out the turf.

The administration evidently conceded defeat because they have lately advanced a far bolder gambit, by scrapping the aptitude test altogether. The proposed substitution of a lottery system fired so much outrage that the board opted for quotas instead — geographically assigned, to draw a thin veil over what a federal judge has deemed a patently obvious motive of racial redistribution. The new quotas were ruled unconstitutional, but not before they effected a brutal realignment in the student body demographics. TJ’s Asian population dropped 19 points in a single year, from 73 per cent to 54 per cent.

The Diversity, Equality and Inclusion activists have only succeeded in cutting off one head of the hydra. The jaws of the lawsuit, filed by a coalition of Asian parents, already hold them fast. Close by lurks the reality of winners winning.

By stacking the deck against them, the administration has incentivised the most determined applicants to change their game plan. Families who would have been willing to invest hundreds if not thousands of dollars in exam prep courses, plus hours of studying alongside their children, to say nothing of fighting their way through the immigration system to live and thrive in the United States, will not baulk at moving house. 

If they relocate to a historically under-represented school district, their child can zoom to the top of the selection pool. It may take time, but TJ’s diversity champions will find, try as they might to deter them, that high achievers are tenacious — and cleverer than they are.

This is not to say that only students of a certain ethnic make-up, at a certain income level, merit admission to TJ. That is, rather, the implication of the social justice campaign. Students of certain skin colours supposedly cannot expect to gain entrance, unless the admissions process somehow accounts for their pigmentation (not their ethnicity or cultural heritage, as my experience shows).

In its enthusiasm for equity and social justice, the school leadership seems to have lost sight of the mission spelled out in TJ’s name. The governor did not grant the school access to taxpayer funds, with its own distinctive bylaws and curriculum standards, so that it would provide a first-rate education to a racially representative sample of Virginia’s students. TJ’s mission is to support students’ pursuit of excellence in the study of science and technology.

Before graduating from TJ, each of my classmates passed calculus. Some went on to study linear algebra and differential equations. As a basic requirement, we studied a different core science each year: first Biology with its fieldwork project, then Chemistry to practise laboratory work, followed by the infamous Physics classes for our third year. 

This course taught concepts from electromagnetism like Gauss’s Law, with ruthless disregard for those of us who had never laid eyes on an integral before. In our final year, we undertook independent projects at one of the Senior Research Labs (which range from Neuroscience and Robotics, to Oceanography and Astrophysics) — in addition to a year-long course in Earth Science.

Achieving this level of academic rigour requires a strong foundation in mathematics, which the original admissions process secured through the aptitude test and maths prerequisites. The equity campaign has removed this safeguard. It has invited young students into a fast-paced, high-pressure environment without ensuring that they have the skills to succeed.

Perhaps it was not the lack of preparedness that has resulted in low acceptance rates for “under-represented” groups. Perhaps a more nefarious discriminatory force is to blame, or perhaps the brave new world of social justice would view the lack of preparedness and racial discrimination as one and the same. Regardless, the outcome does not change. Removing a standardised, quantitative metric for assessing candidates’ current capabilities in mathematics and logical reasoning will fundamentally alter not just the look, but the character of the school.

Before TJ, I attended a magnet middle school that attempted to square the circle by awarding half of its seats by merit, half by lottery, with predictable results. Quota-based admissions encourage a more subtle but no less divisive schism between those who would have qualified under the old system and those who could only qualify under the new. By the time I left TJ, the staff were already preparing to offer remedial mathematics classes.

The school could not have devised a better way to deny the benefits of attending TJ to their demographics of interest than by forcibly guaranteeing their admission. TJ cannot be divided up and dished out, like a pie. Its character does not derive primarily from its resources, but the shared sense of community and purpose. Changing who attends classes there is a fool’s errand.

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