TJ Math Teachers Note ‘Lowering of Standards’

Asra Nomani | Asra Investigates

On May 31, the public relations team at Fairfax County Public Schools scored a big “hit,” as it’s called in PR, getting the stories of four hand-selected students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology featured in a Washington Post article by education reporter Hannah Natanson, headlined: “Hear from four TJ freshmen admitted under controversial circumstances.”

In the article, Natanson disparaged a “a group of disgruntled parents” that filed a lawsuit against new race-based admissions changes to the school, even though a federal judge, Claude Hilton, ruled earlier this year that the changes are illegal, “patently unconstitutional” and anti-Asian. That would be like calling the Brown family in Brown v. Board of Education “disgruntled.”

Weaponizing innocent students for its PR, the school district used the article to try to vindicate the school board’s failed policies with America’s No. 1 high school. School board chair Stella Pekarsky shared the article on Facebook with the hashtag: #studentvoices.

The next week, school board members posted photos and video from TJ’s Class of 2022 graduation with vice chair Rachna Sizemore Heizer posting a breathless message about student “pride in your TJ family and community.”

‘Hi Math 4 Students’

But, days later, parents, students and alumni are sharing a frank email — “Hi Math 4 Students” — that Math 4 TJ teachers sent to students this past Thursday that keeps things real.

The teachers said that the average score for their final exam for Math 4 — equivalent to trigonometry — was “in the low 70s with a substantial minority scoring below 50%,” calling the results “the lowest scores we’ve ever seen,” even amid a “lowering of standards” at the school for the course. (It isn’t clear yet the identities of the teachers.)

The teachers wrote:

These scores are deeply disappointing, and are the lowest scores we’ve ever seen as Math 4 teachers on a Final Exam.

The math teachers noted that the final exam was “substantially easier” than final exams given to previous classes. The teachers said the students had “unprecedented supports provided to you this semester, including extra practice quizzes, bonus quizzes, practice worksheets, and a practice final exam, all things that were not given to previous students.”

The teachers continued:

We expected to see scores rise, not drop, with our lowering of standards.

The juxtaposition of the school district’s PR hype with this email reveals once again how school board officials, educrats and the school principal are more concerned with face-saving PR and activism than actual excellence in education. While the tone of the email — harsh to some parents, fair to others — puts the onus for the failing grades on the students, some of them as young as 14 or 15, the bottomline for the failures at TJ rests with the school board, school district officials and the school principal, Ann Bonitatibus, who many parents say has undermined academic advancement since her start at TJ in the summer of 2017, literally bringing a program called “Challenge Success” to the school in 2018.

Why ‘lowering of standards’ matters

The students in the spring semester course of Math 4, which the email is about, include Class of 2024 students, the last class admitted through the merit-based admissions tests that the school board eliminated in December 2020, and students from the Class of 2025, admitted through the new race-based admissions process.

This is the translation of courses at TJ:

  • Math 1 and 2 = geometry;
  • Math 3 = Algebra 2;
  • Math 4 = trigonometry;
  • Math 5 = precalculus.

As a solution, the teachers said:

We will curve the exam by 10 percentage points (which means 7.5 points, out of 75), but you should know that this curve is artificial and not deserved.

The teachers admonished the students for not attending after-class tutoring with teachers, held during something called “8th period,” and scolding them also for not submitting test corrections.

They wrote:

This indicates to us that you either didn’t study, or you studied poorly. Even worse, the preponderance of evidence indicates that many of you weren’t willing to change how you learned or studied since the start of Math 4.

Why does an email to a group of math students at one school in Northern Virginia matter?

The “lowering of standards” that the math teachers acknowledge is happening across the country with a national war on merit, advanced academics and fair competition, as school districts eliminate failing gradesadvanced placement courses, merit admissions and even valedictorian honors, in the misguided name of “equity.”

The “lowering of standards” at TJ matter. The school has graduated future inventors, researchers, entrepreneurs and innovators since its launch in 1985, and the “lowering of standards” reveal a national security threat for the U.S., as it attempts to compete with nations like China in science and technology. Advanced math is a critical element for success in careers from computer science to astrophysics and aeronautical engineering.

The “lowering of standards” reflects the failure of the school beoard and principal to help some of the school district’s brightest — and most academically motivated — students. And it underscores the point that “disgruntled parents” (including me) have been arguing for two years now to deaf ears from the principal, school board and school district officials: education, not activism, should be the priority of school officials.

Punctuating with “❤️,”

Most recently, the Fairfax County school board ignited parental backlash with the news that it would discipline elementary school children for the “malicious misgendering” of other children’s pronouns.

One former TJ parent said: “Looks like the teachers have had it. ‘Our lowering of standards.’ ‘Either you didn’t study, or you studied poorly.’ ‘This curve is artificial and not well deserved.’ ‘This time, it’s on you.’ WOW.”

At the end of the day, our obligation as a society is to support and encourage youth to be the best they can be. We can scrutinize the tone with which the teachers lectured the students — on the eve of summer vacation — and we can hyper-analyze the way students manage their time.

But ultimately this is a failure of leadership — from the school board to the school principal and superintendent who love to brag about the success of TJ students but do little to actually support these remarkable students who accomplish despite these bureaucrats.

The lesson from this email is that educrats need to start spending their time less on PR and more on actual educational supports that help students and teachers succeed.

And with the “❤️,” with which the Math 4 teachers signed off, they remind us that the best gift we can give our children is accountability but also unconditional love — so no matter what the email received or the grades earned, they know they are adored, cherished and precious. That’s simple math.

Asra Nomani is a senior contributor at The Federalist and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Network, which is dedicated to helping parents around the country advocate for children. A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Nomani writes a regular newsletter, Asra Investigates, with breaking news and analysis on the frontlines of culture and politics. She is cofounder of the Coalition for TJ, a grassroots parent group, and the Pearl Project, an investigative reporting initiative. She can be reached at asra@asranomani.com or via direct message on Twitter @AsraNomani, if you have tips or thoughts.


Read the full ‘Hi Math 4 Students’ email

Hi Math 4 Students, 

Congratulations on completing the TJ Math 4 course. We want to be transparent with you about the Final Exam. The average score across the board was in the low 70s with a substantial minority scoring below 50%. These scores are deeply disappointing, and are the lowest scores we’ve ever seen as Math 4 teachers on a Final Exam. The test that you took is substantially easier than the Final Exam given to previous students. Most questions were procedural, and very few were word and application questions. Plus, there was already a built in curve of 3 points. This is in the context of unprecedented supports provided to you this semester, including extra practice quizzes, bonus quizzes, practice worksheets, and a practice final exam, all things that were not given to previous students. We expected to see scores rise, not drop, with our lowering of standards.

Furthermore:

  • Less than 10% of you came to an 8th period tutoring session this year.
  • More than 75% of you did not submit test corrections, and lost the opportunity for retake points.
  • Many of you even forgot something as basic as the double angle identity. You just had to memorize it!
  • Most of you struggled on problems that you yourselves created on the Practice Exam. Given you’ve already seen the problem, frankly, there was no excuse for forgetting how to do these questions.

This indicates to us that you either didn’t study, or you studied poorly. Even worse, the preponderance of evidence indicates that many of you weren’t willing to change how you learned or studied since the start of Math 4. We know that it is a pastime of students (I know because one of us went to TJ, and one of us went to Stuyvesant HS) to blame external factors like teachers, the exam, the pandemic, etc. for this. But this time, it’s on you.

We are not saying that you should spend hours and hours studying. That will not help you. Spending the time better will. If you are putting the work in as the course goes along, and not waiting until the night before the test to try to learn everything, we believe you will be more successful and actually enjoy your math classes more.

Here’s some ways you could have spend your time better:

  • Reconsider how you used your homework assignments and the posted keys during this course.  Did vou check your work carefully with the key?
  • Did you go back and look at example problems for the problems you do wrong and then do some similar type problems until you felt confident?
  • Did you ask questions about those problems in class?  Did you highlight those problems as ones to review before the test?
  • Did you use your tests and quizzes as a study resource?  Did you make sure you UNDERSTOOD how to solve the problems that you lost points on? Many of you made the same mistakes on the final that you did on your unit assessments. Did you try reworking the problems you got wrong?  This is the point of doing corrections – we don’t just encourage you to do these so that we have more things to grade!
  • How did you use the extra resources posted in Schoology?  You had access to videos on every lesson we taught, most of them by a different teacher (who may well say something in a way that clicks for you if you didn’t get it when your teacher explained it.) You had access to EVERY quiz and the cumulative problem sets from our virtual year.  These were basically practice tests.
  • Speaking of practice tests, we took an entire class period for you to write questions for a practice final, and then several hours compiling and formatting those questions.  Did you use the practice final and the key?  Many of you missed questions on the final that looked amazingly similar to questions on the practice final. 

A curve is usually given when teachers mismatch the levels between what students are expected to master, and what students are capable of. For this final exam, it was simply not the case. We will curve the exam by 10 percentage points (which means 7.5 points, out of 75), but you should know that this curve is artificial and not deserved. Your subscores, and therefore second chance eligibility points, will remain the same. If you scored below a 50%, that curve will be applied to your actual score, not from 50%.

Finally, some advice:

  • Pre-Curve, if you scored below a 60%, we strongly suggest that you retake TJ Math 4. You are not ready to move onto TJ 5. Please speak with your teacher about this.
  • Pre-Curve, if you scored between 61% to 80%, you will have a difficult time in TJ 5 unless you change the way you study, and chance the way vou learn. You need to submit test corrections for every exam. You need to sign up for every 8th period with your teacher.
  • Pre-Curve, if you scored above 80%, we are confident that you have the skills to succeed TJ5.
  • If all you’re taking away from this email is “We’re getting a curve!’ and you immediately start calculating your grade, then you should know that you’re taking the wrong experience from TJ. You will not have a happy 4 years. 

We still believe that every single one of you belongs at this school and can succeed. Our disappointment and doubt lies in your attitude towards learning, not your capability to learn. Attitudes can change, and we expect that they will, in your next math class.

❤️,

Your Math 4 Teachers

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