Report: VA schools did not deliberately withhold National Merit notification

The attorney general launched an investigation into Thomas Jefferson High School that has since spread to the entire Fairfax County Public School district.

Updated: March 30, 2023 - 11:00pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

A third-party investigation into delays by a Northern Virginia school district in notifying some students of National Merit recognition found there was no evidence to suggest the school district deliberately withheld notifications, school administrators announced this week.

In a letter to the community this week, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Michelle Reid wrote that after hours of interviews as part of a law firm’s independent investigation, investigators found “no evidence to suggest that FCPS deliberately withheld notification of Commended Student status from any student.” Reid added the investigation also revealed “no evidence of any inequity or racial bias in the actions taken by these schools regarding notifications or distribution of these certificates.”

FCPS was among the northern Virginia public school districts that acknowledged delays in notifying some students of National Merit recognition – specifically students who had earned the “Commended Student” status based on test scores. National Merit awards recognize the top 50,000 students with the highest score on the PSAT. Of those, 16,000 qualify as semifinalists – meaning they can compete for scholarships – and roughly 34,000 are designated “Commended Students.”

Some parents from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology – the top school in the nation based in Fairfax County – alleged in December 2022 the school had deliberately withheld notification of National Merit awards, claiming the withheld notification was to avoid hurting the feelings of students who were not recognized for awards.

The claims drew the attention of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares. The attorney general ultimately launched an investigation into Thomas Jefferson High School that has since spread to the entire Fairfax County Public School district.

Miyares' investigation into FCPS remains ongoing, according to the attorney general's spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita.

“It’s encouraging that FCPS is working to be more transparent about the inconsistencies surrounding their National Merit award decisions and process,” LaCivita said in a statement Thursday in response to the third-party investigation.

FCPS completed an internal review in December 2022 and found “no validity” to the claims, but ultimately decided to retain Sands Anderson law firm to begin an independent investigation in January 2023.

Over the course of the investigation, Sands Anderson conducted 29 interviews with FCPS principals, administrators, parents and central office leadership, according to a release from the school district.

Investigators discovered all FCPS high schools that had Commended Students provided notice to students of their achievement – 15 high schools did so before Nov. 1, 2022, while eight did not provide notice by Nov. 1. Five FCPS high schools had no Commended Students in 2022.

“The investigation found that the timing for providing notification to Commended Students at those eight schools was impacted by logistical factors that varied from school to school but had nothing to do with race or any effort to downplay students’ achievements,” according to a summary of the investigation’s key findings. “Despite the timing, all Commended Students were provided notification of their awards. The investigation found no evidence suggesting that any later-than-usual notification impaired students’ academic, professional, or financial interests.”

Investigators also said they “did not identify any TJ Commended Students or parents who believed a student’s admission to their college or university of choice was adversely affected as a result of the notification process employed by TJ in 2022.” The investigation also found there was no “effort to withhold recognition of student excellence or achievement” at Thomas Jefferson.

As for next steps, the law firm noted the “absence” of a division-wide policy for notifying Commended Students of their recognition “may have been a contributing factor explaining why in 2022 some FCPS high schools provided such notices later in the school year than was their historical practice.”

Reid, the superintendent, said this week the school has already developed a new regulation outlining a division-wide process for high schools to follow to ensure students are notified of all National Merit recognition in the future.

Just the News Spotlight