Grades, scores or character?

Less than four percent of students are black or Hispanic at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a public magnet school in Virginia.  Forty-six percent of students are Asian-American. TJ’s admissions committee should consider character as well as brains, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

Last year, the school says, 52 Hispanics and 29 blacks reached the semifinal round of admissions, based on their academic records. But only 13 Hispanics and four blacks were enrolled.

The ability to benefit from the school’s imaginative teaching is not the main criterion for the admission people, I suspect. Like the rest of us, they are impressed by test scores.

Many highly selective high schools are predominantly Asian-American, Mathews writes. Asian immigrant parents push their children to excel academically, especially in science and math. When TJ looks for students with a “passion” for science and math — and high test scores and grades —  it finds many Asian-American students.

The school’s administrators, teachers and counselors have formed a Diversity and Engagement Curriculum Team to recruit more blacks and Hispanics.

“Success in America stems more from character than test-taking ability,” Mathews writes. “We can tell which Jefferson applicants show signs of the determination and grace that produce great lives” by talking to their middle-school teachers.

Many of the most promising ones will be black and Hispanic. Give more of them a chance, and Jefferson will not only be a more interesting school to attend, but more reflective of the values we want all of our kids to have.

Do blacks and Hispanic students have more “character” than Asian-American students? They’ve probably dealt with more adversity. But most of those Asian kids are exceptionally determined people; many have overcome language and cultural challenges. I’d bet their middle-school teachers love them.

Diversity arguments for discriminating on the basis of race and ethnicity are incoherent, argues John Rosenberg on Discriminations. “If Mathews’ suggestions for TJ were adopted perhaps its name should be changed to The Thomas Jefferson High School For Interested, Determined, Graceful Students Of Good Character. The school would probably still be good … but it wouldn’t be TJ.”

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Subjective admissions criteria are designed to get around the objective lack of actual qualifications.
    Now, suppose TJ lets the “characters”–no, I mean the kids with “character”–in. By definition, they are not qualified. They will not graduate in the proper proportion. What then?
    Universities are already facing this problem and requiring, according to various anecdotes, race-specific dumbing down.
    In addition, this implies Asian kids are deficient in character. If Asians were a Designated Victims’ Group,, this wouldn’t be allowed.

  2. A magnet school can be grounded in a diverse or narrow scope – it’s up to the district. Thus, if TJ seeks to use merely academic criteria, that is fine for TJ. Certainly, there are many approaches to creating these sorts of schools, and some do in fact include character and qualities beyond academics. But I don’t know that Matthews is right that TJ “should” do anything different than what it is doing. It is successful for what it strives to be. Perhaps another charter that also promotes diversity is a good idea. The more the merrier when we’re talking about good schools.

  3. georgelarson says:

    I wonder what kind of character the current TJ students have?

    They set a very high goal and achieved it.

    They were willing to leave ther friends behind to pursue excellence.

    They traded being a big fish in a small pond for swimming out where there was a much higher standard.

    I think the TJ students have brass ovaries and brass testicles compared to the minority students Mathews favors.

  4. georgelarson says:

    Why not open up the first semester of the Freshman year to almost anyone, say up to 2000 students? Then base promotion to the second semester based on class rank and the number of slots available, 500 students. I do not know the numbers. Mathews students wil get their chance to strive and succeed. Those who do not make the cut will go back to their home high school.

    Yes, I see the problem. Almost every parent in Nothern Virginia will want their child in the 2000.

  5. Wait. There’s no reason why each and every student in Fairfax County can’t have a good character. You can’t build a limited-enrollment school on a selection criterion that is potentially within the reach of every applicant. I’m serious; people with Down Syndrome often have the best character of anyone in the room. And why shouldn’t the other high schools have their fair share of students with excellent character?

    Jay, it may be OK to deny students admission because of demonstrably bad character, but there’s no conceivable way to make “good character” a dominant selection trait; too many people have it — and yet, at the same tinme, it’s too hard to define and way too hard to turn into a numerical ranking useful for yes/no decisions.

  6. Richard Nieporent says:

    As a graduate of the Bronx H.S. of Science, I am sorely tempted to tell Jay Mathews what he can do with his idea. The name of the school is the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. I don’t see the word character anywhere in the name.

    Jefferson teachers tell me their admission committee is more handicapped by the fact that many bright eighth-graders, of all ethnicities, don’t want to attend their school or any like it.

    So let us force them to attend it even though they don’t want to go. Is that what you want to do, Jay?

    First, most parents have little opportunity or interest in sending their children to selective high schools, public or private. We think our kids can get just as good an education in the neighborhood school. In many cases we are right. Most Northern Virginia schools have teachers just as good as those at Jefferson.

    So if they can get as good an education, what is the problem Jay?

    Second, many Asian American families, particularly those more recently arrived, have a reverence for science, math and academic success not typical of this country, and remember prestigious selective secondary schools in China, Japan and Korea. They love what Jefferson offers and apply out of proportion to their numbers. Their children’s commitment to science and math may be particularly important to their being more likely to be admitted than other ethnic groups

    You’re a master of the obvious, Jay. Of course there is also such a thing as aptitude for science and math that they also possess.

  7. Cranberry says:

    Here is a relevant demographic fact: at many of our most selective public schools, students of Asian ancestry are the largest ethnic group. This is true of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Hunter College in New York City, and Lowell and Whitney in California, all of whom draw from areas where Asians are a minority. At 46 percent, Asians are also the largest ethnic group at Jefferson.

    Why is it acceptable to complain about these students’ dedication to academics? This is a very ugly example of racism. (Try substituting “Jews” for “Asians.”)

    It is not acceptable to impugn the character of American students who happen to be of Asian ancestry. The students who earn admission to competitive high schools should be congratulated for their hard work and character–there are not “too many” Asian students. There are hard working American students. I would that more students took academics seriously.

  8. Cranberry says:

    I would add that this attitude is precisely the sort of institutionalized racism Jerome Karabel accused the Ivy League of practicing against Jews, down to the plea for the inclusion of character as a criterion for admission. This attitude is shameful. There is no excuse.

  9. Well, he obviously isn’t satisfied with ransacking the AP program with his absurd rating system; TJ is next in sights.

  10. If you believe in evaluating performance, Mathews’ idea is idiotic.

  11. The kids accepted to TJ have spent nine years working hard for top grades in the most challenging courses they can take. Why should kids who have not put in that effort and/or who have not had the same results but who “are excited about math” be accepted? Ridiculous. Not to mention that such kids will not be able to handle the work in the current course offerings, so must have new courses added for them or water down the current courses. Horrible, horrible idea.

  12. Character is just a buzzword. The nicest, most honest, most compassionate person in the world still might be dismal at math and or science. Trying to force square pegs into round holes just makes both miserable. Matthews would be better off advocating for the black/latino kids to be taught proper study skills.

  13. georgelarson says:

    Some people who were not very nice and could have been described as having bad character were also great scientists: Newton.

  14. Mike Curtis says:

    When my chest needs to be cracked open by a surgeon, I won’t be caring about the surgeon’s character as much as his/her competence. When I take my auto to a mechanic, I don’t care if he/she is a registered convict, as long as the car is fixed.

    Somewhere along the line, a person’s ability to do what you are depending upon them to do has to mean more than the same person’s character. If you are carrying a couple of hundred passengers from London to New York in a 747, and you suddenly lose two engines halfway across the pond, I won’t care if you are a man wearing a dress, who hates Jesus, and doesn’t care about the taste of dolphin in his tuna…I want to know…Can you get me home alive?

    Character counts; but, competence matters.

  15. Mike, you are a genius. 🙂

    There’s an old story from the days when Ronald Reagan was Governor of California; in his early years as Governor, he wanted to replace the U. of California and California State admissions systems so that they were entirely performance-based. “But, sir,” his State Secretary of Education warned him, “If you do that, California colleges will be dominated by Asians, and in some cases become entirely Asian.”

    Reagan’s response was, “… So?”

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Reagan was a racist. It is well known.