National News Desk

Number of Virginia schools reporting delayed National Merit recognition grows amid probe

Empty classrooms at school
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(WASHINGTON) — More than a dozen high schools in northern Virginia have reported delays in notifying students of prestigious National Merit recognition, as state officials investigate the growing controversy.

The issue came to light last month, when several parents accused Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County of not telling students they had received National Merit recognition to avoid upsetting others who had not.

School officials said they believed the delay was “a unique situation due to human error” and are investigating why notifications did not go out “in a timely manner” to those designated as commended students by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Fairfax County Public Schools officials previously told ABC News that “to suggest a deliberate intent to withhold this information would be inaccurate and contrary to the values” of the school district.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares launched a probe into the matter earlier this month to determine whether the Thomas Jefferson school administration violated students’ civil rights. The investigation subsequently expanded to the entire Fairfax County school district “in light of reports and complaints that multiple schools across the county withheld awards from high achieving students,” the attorney general’s office said on Jan. 9.

In a letter to the school district’s superintendent, Miyares said he was aware through public reports that at least three schools in the district “may have withheld National Merit recognition from students.”

Reviews conducted in the wake of the Thomas Jefferson revelations have surfaced even more schools. Overall, at least 16 public schools across multiple school districts delayed sharing National Merit recognition this school year — including Thomas Jefferson and seven other schools in Fairfax County, as well as four in Loudoun County and four in Prince William County — based on individual school and district statements.

Prince William County Public Schools became the latest school district to alert families to its “oversight,” saying this week that four of its 13 high schools made “delayed notification” to 28 students who had received a letter of commendation from the National Merit Scholarship Program in September.

“Our school leaders and teams work incredibly hard to not only acknowledge but also celebrate all student achievement, and those schools that experienced this oversight based on sheer human error are devastated that this was a missed opportunity to recognize their students’ accomplishments,” the school district’s superintendent, LaTanya McDade, said during a school board meeting Wednesday night.

She added, “We are deeply sorry for the oversight and offer a sincere apology on behalf of our schools, school division, and school board for any frustration this delayed notification may have caused to our students and families.”

Also on Wednesday, Marshall High School in Fairfax County said it conducted a review and found that an unspecified number of students designated as commended students this past fall “were notified later than we would have hoped.”

“We are sincerely sorry for this error,” Principal Jeffrey Litz said in an update to the school community, adding that the issue will be reviewed by an independent third party. “We are committed to sharing any key findings and any updates to our processes to ensure future consistency in appropriate and timely notification of National Merit Scholarship Corporation recognitions.”

The National Merit Scholarship Program is a national academic competition for high school students administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Students qualify by achieving a high score on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, or PSAT.

Schools are tasked in the fall with notifying students whether they were recognized as a commended student — an honor that at least 3% of PSAT takers earn. A delay in alerting students could cause them to miss deadlines for adding the honor to their early-decision college applications or miss out on scholarships, parents say.

Miyares, Virginia’s attorney general, recently told ABC News that his office’s preliminary report showed that more than 1,000 students were affected.

“Attorney General Miyares is looking at every complaint and allegation regarding potential violations of the Virginia Human Rights Act at Northern Virginia high schools,” Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said in a statement Wednesday. “We encourage any student or parent who believes they have been discriminated against to file a complaint with our Office of Civil Rights on our website.”

Some districts are changing how they handle National Merit notifications as a result of their reviews. McDade said that Prince William County Public Schools will ensure that each school has a dedicated person responsible for “facilitating timely notification of student recognition” and plans to recommend to the National Merit Scholarship Program that it directly notifies students of commendation notification “rather than relying solely on a mailed notification to the local school.”

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