Student perspective on the TJHSST “War on Merit” debate


Photo used with permission

At Jefferson’s library, a meeting attendee is interviewed by a news reporter. After school on Jan. 3, a meeting was held with Superintendent Dr. Reid to discuss the delay in giving students their letters of commendation.

*The following is a staff editorial and reflects the majority opinion of the tjTODAY student staff.

Among Jefferson students, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) letters of commendation were not a topic of debate, or even discussion, until articles accusing the administration of purposefully withholding these letters began circulating in the news. 

On Nov. 21, 2022, Jefferson parent Shawna Yashar emailed principal Ann Bonitatibus after realizing letters of commendation for the National Merit Scholarship were handed out on Nov. 14, a few days after most early college applications were due. The resulting discussions between Yashar, Bonitatibus, and student services director Brandon Kosatka prompted a former Jefferson parent, Asra Q. Nomani, to publish an opinion piece titled “The War on Merit Takes a Bizarre Turn” on Dec. 21. Currently, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares and Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) are both conducting investigations into the matter. 

Should the letters of commendation have been handed out in a timely manner? Yes. 

Should commended seniors have been able to include their status in early college applications? Yes. 

However, was this a purposeful move by the administration to devalue merit? As students, we believe that is unlikely, and an unnecessarily dramatic interpretation of what happened.

Nomani’s article for City Journal indicated that students lost millions of dollars in scholarship money because commendations were delayed. This is far from the truth. 

Commended students, including the commended Jefferson students who were notified late, are the top 50,000 scorers in the nation on the PSAT/NMSQT. In October 2022, 132 Jefferson seniors were recognized as semifinalists, who have the opportunity to apply to become a finalist and win a Merit Scholarship Award. Commended students cannot receive these scholarships. 

A commendation’s ability to affect college admissions is also questionable—a PSAT commendation serves little use when most colleges use SAT or ACT scores to gauge students’ standardized testing abilities.

As for merit, it’s recognized at Jefferson, but a commendation on the PSAT is not considered a high-merit achievement, at least among most students. Here, a highly-merited distinction is launching a satellite into space or winning a national science fair award. At a school where the 2020 SAT average was 1528, a PSAT commendation is seen as just the norm. Students within the tjTODAY staff who received the delayed letter of commendation, for example, as well as most of their peers, simply did not think much of it, because by and large, it’s not seen as a highly valued distinction, especially in the face of “better” awards like a semifinalist or finalist designation. 

The tjTODAY staff is not defending a view of merit where a distinction can lose value simply because most students have it. This type of view can foster competitiveness and hurt students’ mental health. However, in the status quo, the lack of value given to awards like a National Merit Commendation stems from a highly qualified student body, not from the administration.

In fact, based on emails between parents and school administration, Jefferson previously held a  recognition ceremony for semifinalists and commended students–but the ceremony had low attendance and was therefore discontinued. 

The delay in notifying the students of their status was wrong, but framing it as a war on merit is misleading. Merit is valued, recognized, and considered in every corner of Jefferson, from morning announcements to weekly emails to conversations, whether about scoring an internship or a recent physics test. Merit is recognized by the administration, too. As a part of Jefferon’s December update email, TJ Space was recognized for launching a satellite, and in November, TJ Quizbowl was recognized for winning local tournaments. The 132 NMSQT semifinalists were also recognized by FCPS in a timely manner. 

There is one place where we’ll concede withholding commendations did real, irreversible damage: Special Scholarships. They are offered to some commended students whose parents work at one of NMSQT’s corporate sponsors, and they change in value depending on the company involved. A call to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation revealed that one of our writers, a commended student, would have been eligible to apply for a special scholarship because a parent worked for one of NMSQT’s sponsors. They were unable to apply, as the deadline was Oct. 15, and commendation letters were not handed out until Nov. 14. 

At the same time, that student claims they would not have even known to apply even if they’d received the commendation notification. This hints to the necessary course of action for future NMSQT commendation notices. Ideally, Jefferson should not just provide commended students a certificate, but also brief them on what a commendation means, and what opportunities it can bring. 

Without getting Jefferson students’ input, news sites have been representing Jefferson as a school where merit is devalued and the administration does not want us to succeed. This image is fundamentally wrong. We wholly believe that the delay of NMSC letters of commendation was an unfortunate mistake. While we hope administration does better in distributing the letters of commendation in the future, we urge readers not to blow this out of proportion or connect this issue to other debates circling the Jefferson community, such as admissions.