Each year, millions of American high school students take the Preliminary SAT, a standardized test whose highest scorers are recognized by the National Merit Scholarship Program (NMSP). Being awarded by the NMSP is one of the top academic awards available to American high school students. The achievement is a sought-after line item on college applications and is often accompanied by thousands of dollars in merit scholarships.
However, according to one parent and journalist, the top-ranked high school in the country has been neglecting to inform students that they have won NMSP recognition for years, resulting in over a thousand students being denied the opportunity to apply for crucial NMSP-specific college scholarships.
Why? To avoid hurting the feelings of students who didn't win.
Last week, former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Q. Nomani published an article in City Journal alleging that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ)—a magnet school outside Washington, D.C., currently ranked as the top public high school in America—had deliberately delayed, and in some cases entirely forwent, telling students that they had been recognized by the NMSP. According to Nomani, at least 1,200 students were affected over the past five years.
The NMSP gives out two categories of awards. Around 16,000 "Semifinalists" are eligible for an additional tier of competition for awards ranging from $2,500 from the NMSP itself to a litany of full-ride college scholarships. A larger group of 34,000 "Commended" students are eligible only to apply for one of 800 corporate-sponsored scholarships.
Nomani primarily alleges that TJ failed to notify Commended students, leaving unclear whether Semifinalists were also consistently left unnotified by administrators.
Even if the only students denied knowledge of their award were Commended students, this still represents a substantial denial of the opportunity to not only apply for NMSP-specific scholarships but also include the award on college applications. It's also a significant betrayal by school administrators.
While failing to inform students of this achievement would be frustrating if it was due to mere incompetence, Nomani reports that school administrators themselves admitted that it was a deliberate tactic to underplay the achievements of the school's top students.
"We want to recognize students for who they are as individuals, not focus on their achievements," Brandon Kosatka, TJ's director of student services, said in a phone call with one parent who confronted him over the withheld information. Further, Nomani notes Kosatka told this parent that "he and the principal didn't want to 'hurt' the feelings of students who didn't get the award."
While, according to Nomani, the school's practices have been uncovered and administrators have announced that they would contact college admissions offices to inform them of students' awards, for many the damage is already done. For awarded students who have already graduated—Nomani's son among them—the school has neither notified them of their awards nor delivered the award certificates they were owed from years past. Making matters worse, many of these students would have likely received additional scholarships were they informed of their eligibility.
"It just makes me feel bad. It boils my blood," one parent told a local news station. "I hate to say that."
This anti-merit trend—one that seems bizarrely counterintuitive for administrators at a highly selective STEM-based magnet school—is part of a broader pattern in education, where pushes to increase "equity" have often meant depriving academic opportunities for top students.
Around the country, school districts are nixing honors classes, getting rid of D and F grades, and making admission to academically rigorous magnet schools based on luck rather than skill. TJ itself was recently embroiled in a legal battle over changes to its admissions standards, which school board officials admitted were designed to decrease the number of Asian students at the school. Supporters claim such policies increase diversity—seemingly missing the obvious fact that such policies remove academic opportunities for talented students of all backgrounds.
While TJ administrators seem to have played a particularly dirty trick, the trend of de-centering student academic achievement in favor of an "equitable" race to the bottom isn't going away anytime soon.