Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia drops in U.S. News Ranking

After three years in the top spot, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the prestigious magnet school in Fairfax County, dropped to fifth in U.S. News & World Report’s “Best High Schools” rankings.

Thomas Jefferson, locally known as TJ, has been ensnared in controversy since the Fairfax County School Board voted in 2020 to alter its admission process, in part to boost diversity at the school. The changes sparked anger and pushback from parents who filed a lawsuit against the school board, alleging that the new process discriminated against Asian American students. Asian American enrollment dropped from about 70 percent to about 50 percent after the policy took effect in 2021.

U.S. News & World Report used data from before that change. It considered figures from the 2020-2021 school year — before students admitted under the new admission process were enrolled — to rank nearly 18,000 public schools in the country. The rankings released on Tuesday measured schools on a variety of factors such as enrollment, student diversity, graduation rates and the testing results.

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TJ ranked first for three consecutive years before the Early College at Guilford in Greensboro, N.C., took the top spot in this year’s rankings. Thomas Jefferson remains ranked as the top public high school in Virginia — and first among magnet schools in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Eric Brooks, principal data analyst for education at U.S. News, noted that Thomas Jefferson ranked fourth in 2019 and 10th in 2018.

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“Not being number one is not some huge historical deviation. It’s always been very highly ranked toward the top,” he said.

Brooks said that the difference in moving between the first and fifth spots came from slight changes in performance on Advanced Placement tests and Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessment. He noted that among the best-performing schools, the smallest differences could affect ranking.

“At these top schools, everyone graduates, everyone’s proficient in their state assessments, everyone’s getting a qualifying score on APs,” Brooks said. “So we’re really splitting hairs on the number of AP exams of qualifying scores or the number that earns the highest performance level on math, science and reading.”

Jiunwei Chen, vice president of the TJ Alumni Action Group, an organization that pushed for the admission changes, said that the ranking drop doesn’t seem to be a big deal. Chen, who graduated from TJ in 1997, said the school is still highly ranked, successful in college readiness and highly sought-after, which he said are more important indicators of success than competing with other schools for a top ranking.

“For many years we weren’t ranked at all. It just wasn’t a big deal,” said Chen, 44. “We know we are a highly sought-after school, the number doesn’t matter.”

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Last week, the parent group that sued the school board in 2021 filed a petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled in favor of the Fairfax County School Board this year, stating that the process does not discriminate against Asian American students.

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The admission changes move to a more “holistic review” of applicants. The changes include removing a notoriously difficult admission test and $100 application fee, as well as considering applicants on four “experience factors”: income status, English-speaking ability, whether the applicant has a disability and whether the applicant comes from a historically underrepresented school.

Applicants are required to achieve an unweighted grade-point average of at least 3.5 while taking higher-level courses, as well as complete a problem-solving essay and a “Student Portrait Sheet.”

The first class admitted under the new process was more diverse than those in previous years. More Black and Latino students were admitted, as were more girls, low-income students and English-language learners.

Brooks with U.S. News said that the ranking factors focus on 12th-graders taking AP exams.

“Any impact of their change in admission policies would not have affected this ranking,” Brooks said. “It would take a couple years to see any impact from the change and admissions on those outcome measures.”

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