FCPS: Independent investigation finds no deliberate wrongdoing in merit award notice delays

Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

An independent investigation found no basis to claims that notices of National Merit Scholarship commendations were intentionally withheld from students, Fairfax County Public Schools announced last night (Wednesday).

Conducted by the law firm Sands Anderson, the review confirmed that eight schools didn’t notify students designated as “commended” by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) until after Nov. 1, 2022, but it “found no evidence that this was intentional or reflected any policy decision by FCPS” or any of the individual schools, according to FCPS.

“There was no evidence to suggest that FCPS deliberately withheld notification of Commended Student status from any student,” Superintendent Michelle Reid said in a message to families. “In addition, they found no evidence of any inequity or racial bias in the actions taken by these schools regarding notifications or distribution of these certificates.”

Criticism of the school system’s handling of the recognitions emerged in late December, ignited by a City Journal article that suggested Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) intentionally waited until after early college applications were due to notify commended students.

Written by Coalition for TJ co-founder Asra Nomani, the story argued that the delayed notices were part of a “war on merit.” The coalition has a pending lawsuit against FCPS over revisions to the magnet school’s admissions policies, which it says were designed to disadvantage the Asian students who make up a majority of TJ’s student body.

The story picked up steam when Gov. Glenn Youngkin called for an investigation into TJ on Jan. 3. Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares complied, launching a review the following day that later expanded to all of FCPS after Westfield and Langley high schools informed families that they had failed to notify commended students.

Other schools where students experienced delays include Annandale, Thomas Edison, John R. Lewis, Marshall and West Potomac high schools, according to Sands Anderson’s review.

“It’s encouraging that FCPS is working to be more transparent about the inconsistencies surrounding their National Merit award decisions and process,” Miyares spokesperson Victoria LaCivita said. “The Office of the Attorney General will continue its investigation.”

Initially attributing the delays to human error, FCPS conducted an internal review and hired Sands Anderson for a third-party investigation in January.

According to the new report, factors contributing to the delays varied by school. Issues ranged from a clerical oversight and communication gaps due to absent or changing staff to the scheduling of fall awards ceremonies where the certificates get distributed.

In the case of Annandale High School, NMSC had reportedly neglected to mail the certificates until after Nov. 1.

Much confusion, including at TJ, stemmed from a belief that NMSC informs students directly of their “commended” status, which essentially serves as an honorable mention for students who score well on the preliminary SAT test but don’t reach the semifinals of the scholarship program.

“At no school was there any evidence that racial or other discriminatory considerations played any role whatsoever in the timing of notifying Commended Students, nor was there evidence of any effort to minimize recognition of student excellence or achievement,” the report said.

According to the report, the only affected school to receive actual complaints from parents and other community members about the award notices was TJ.

In its summary of the investigation’s findings, FCPS expressed hope that the report will enable it to move past “this unnecessary controversy,” which has required spending “significant division funds on legal counsel” and resulted in harassment of school staff with “hate-filled and threatening” phone calls and emails.

The emotional toll on our staff has been substantial, and, in addition, staff have been required to divert significant time and attention away from their education-focused roles to respond to these inquiries. All of this has harmed and undermined our core educational mission, and we do hope that the factual findings of this external investigation can put this entire issue, and the erroneous claims that sparked this controversy, to rest.

In response to the issues found by the investigation, FCPS has created a new regulation requiring principals or another designated administrator to notify commended students and their parents within two weeks of getting alerted to the honors by NMSC.

Reid said she has also proposed to NMSC and the College Board that they develop a national, “multi-layered” notification system.

“This solution must incorporate electronic notifications to each recognized student, their family, and school division central offices, which do not exist in the NMSC process today,” she wrote. “I am still hopeful that there can be a broader solution to this issue nationwide. In the meantime, we have put our own changes in place, which may serve as a model for other schools in Virginia and nationwide.”