How Were TJHSST Commended Students Harmed?

Part II:  (Part I: What’s a National Merit Scholar?)

The two parents driving this story, Asra Nomani, a former reporter and academic, and Shawnna Yashar, a lawyer, would have probably successfully grabbed the media cycle even if TJ’s administration had been error free. They are passionately committted to challenging the admissions changes at the school as leading members of organization challenging the school’s new admission policy..  Both were heavily involved in the election controversy that nearly got the school’s PTSA organization expelled from the national chapter, while Yashar spearheaded the lawsuit against Fairfax County School Board for keeping the schools closed.  I support their right to advocate;  my point here is simply that this entire issue didn’t occur as an organic parent movement but a focused, target effort to criticize the school.

The original story written by Nomani, makes the following accusations:

“For years, two administrators at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) have been withholding notifications of National Merit awards from the school’s families, most of them Asian, thus denying students the right to use those awards to boost their college-admission prospects and earn scholarships.”

These charges are all false.

The two adminstrators in question, principal Ann Bonitatibus and director of student services, Brandon Kosatka, have not been “withholding notifications”. They have not been denying the students with National Merit Commended status anything whatsoever. Commended ranking is not considered an award and does not render a student eligible for any scholarships they weren’t otherwise qualified for.

I’m reasonably certain TJ’s administrators simply overlooked notifying National Merit Commended students this year, and this year only.

Fairfax County School District says, categorically, that “each year”, TJ notifies students and that only this year had neither “email nor personal notification” occurred,  probably “a unique situation due to human error”. The district–not the school–is saying that TJ’s Commended notifications happen on time each year. The rest of this piece assumes that the Bonitatibus and Kosatka had to prove this to the district and that this year was, in fact, an error. Which strikes me as likely.

The most likely explanation for human error is that National Merit screwed up and didn’t put enough postage on the huge pack of 240 Commended certificates that were sent to the school, so the package got there late. Instead of arriving in late September, they arrived in mid-October. Given the relentless administrative calendars,  it’s quite believable that to someone, probably Kosatka, had moved onto other date-driven tasks and just forgot to build the email list and notify the students. As I wrote earlier about the life of an administrator, the task is a combination of grinding day to day tasks and

Routine yearly or regularly scheduled events that nonetheless require planning, which at the high school level might look like: the master schedule, state tests, graduation, accreditation.

Add “National Merit Commended notifications” to that list, particularly at a school where over 100 kids make semi-finalist alone. So maybe the director of Student Services, Brandon Kosatka, missed his window because of the delayed delivery and went on to the next pressing item on the school calendar and then six weeks later said oh shit I forgot and sent out the certificates in November.

So there it is. Because the school was late sending out the certificates, commended students who didn’t seek out the information on their own didn’t have the opportunity to list it as a fairly minor honor on their early admissions applications.

That’s….not a big deal.

One thing people need to remember is that TJ’s senior class is still part of the old highly competitive admissions process and even now still a highly competitive high school. TJ admission itself is a rough proxy for top 3-4% of all students. In 2022,  132 TJ students got Semifinalist, 240 got Commended. The remaining 19% of the 2023 graduating class probably had scores that missed the 3% cutoff by a point or two. In that context, Kosatka’s comment that “celebrating all but a few of the students” makes sense. They aren’t worried about low-achieving students resenting the two or three honors students, but rather actively making a big deal out of 80% of the class when the distinction is without a difference, at the TJ level.

Semifinalist is useful to a TJ student. Commended is not. (*Important future caveat below.) Commended wasn’t even that big a deal to the students themselves.  In the November emails written by an angry parent (presumably activist lawyer Shawnna Yashar), she admits that her son didn’t even bother to tell her about his Commended status because it’s not a big deal. The emails also show that the school used to have a National Merit ceremony, but nobody came so they quit having it.

So the only screwup the school made was in failing to deliver relatively meaningless certificates or notification, probably because the certificates arrived late. Not only would this have minimal impact….well, understand that the deparment is called “student services” for a reason, not “mandated responsibilities”. High school counselling departments spend a huge amount of time and money on helping their seniors in college admissions, but high schools themselves have very few, if any, legally required duties regarding the application process.

To put this minor delay in notification in perspective:

If a district deliberately withheld notification of Semi-finalist status–a far more consequential award–or  through incompetence or woke policy refused to complete the required paperwork for students, that school wouldn’t have violated any education law that the offended student could point to. Winning any sort of damages would be difficult.  What would the damages be? They might have made it to finalist status? Cool, but so what? They might have gotten a scholarship? Hard to prove. I’m sure people would have been fired in that event. But in a case far more actively damaging and malicious than what is at hand here, there’s still not a lot of legal obligation students can demand from their school. All responsibilities regarding college admission are on the student. Even if the school screws up.

The strategists driving this media manipulation understand, I think, that the failure notification story wouldn’t hold up–it was almost immediately challenged, although sadly not by anyone in the media reporting on this.  That may explain why they have emphasized that the failure to notify students rendered them ineligible for National Merit scholarships.

This is either a deliberate lie or simple ignorance.

Commended students aren’t eligible for any National Merit scholarships. The only related scholarships they can apply for are called Special Scholarships with corporate sponsorship. (The first link goes through the procedure I’ve summarized below, the second has a list of sponsors and criteria on pages 9-10).

In many cases, corporations offer a specific number of grants to high school seniors of employees (sometimes also in a specific region or seniors with a particular major). In years when they can’t find enough finalists meeting their criteria, they will use non-finalists.  

To qualify for a special scholarship, students have to complete an Entry Form with the sponsoring corporation as well as an application with the National Merit  by mid-December. The National Merit program then compiles a specific list of students that qualify for each particular scholarship. Commended students have no priority over non-commended. If the scholarship goes to non-finalists, the award is not designated National Merit and recipients can’t call themselves National Merit Scholars.

Any student who didn’t apply or didn’t meet the specific criteria would not be considered. Any student whose parents worked for a company offering a corporate scholarship could have filled out an application at any time after getting their PSAT scores the year before. The delayed or even non-existent notification of Commended status is completely irrelevant and oh, by the way, came in long before the deadline for Special Scholarships.

No Commended student was denied the right to earn a scholarship because there are no scholarships for Commended students.

Like I said: lying or ignorant.

The only potential harm done by the delayed notification was in the limited sense that students who weren’t aware that Commended cutoffs could be looked up online and who would have included that information on their early admissions applications. That’s a small group. And that potential harm is being remedied by the school reaching out to colleges to ensure they have this information for the students’ applications.

This whole story is just utter, unmitigated bullshit–so much so that I’ve spent considerable time trying to see if I’ve missed something. Surely someone who gets paid to report would have looked up some of this? But not.

I understand why the activist parents are ginning up the story. They want to create political or even legal sympathy for their efforts to restor TJ’s admissions policies.

I don’t understand why the media–not just the reporters, but the many pundits and policy analysts on Twitter–doesn’t take the time to do even minimal research to understand how asinine this story is. Sure, these are people on both the left and right who despise public schools and consider them incompetent. But they aren’t supposed to be activist hacks.


*Many colleges are now prohibiting test scores as part of admissions. TJ is also ending its test-based admissions so it will no longer be a given that the students are top 3-4%. The class of 2026 may value Commended status in a way that current TJ students do not. No test-based admissions, no test scores on applications,  top 3% might be useful information. This doesn’t explain why current parents are freaking out, as it would have no impact on current seniors. It might explain why the school took the step of reaching out to the colleges and why they are planning on new procedures going forward.

About educationrealist

14 responses to “How Were TJHSST Commended Students Harmed?

  • Jeff Lee Byrem

    I served as an educator from 1970 to 2014 from the classroom to curriculum & assessment district administrators to HS Principal to state-level bureaucrat, and until I read your post I never fully understood how adult behaviors related to schooling are the likely foundational cause of the increased suicide rate among our most able students.

  • Lisa

    You’re incoherent and your ‘findings’ are incorrect. National Merit Scholar is an award. Schools (real ones, not joke ones like FCPS) ANNOUNCE the awards during induction to the National Honor Society or at graduation. It’s prestigious and can be used by students to gain full scholarships. Do you want to pay these families back $120,000 for their child’s missed opportunities? Yet, you are probably scraping by to pay for your own kid’s activities. You opine that it’s ‘a small group.’ How is 1200 kids a small group?

    Also, it is not relevant that Ms. Yashar is an attorney. Why do you think that it is?

    • educationrealist

      National Merit is completely different from National Honor society. And for the thousandth time, the kids who made semi-finalist WERE notified earlier and didn’t miss out on any scholarships. Commended students arenot eligible for scholarships. Stop copying and pasting. Try being something other than an echo. REad and think.

      • Lisa

        Wow, you aren’t smart. I stated that National Merit awards are announced at the National Honor Society (NHS) inductions or at graduation. The awards are not part of NHS. Schools announce the awards at these events since the same students will be there. I did not say that the National Merit award was part of NHS.

        The students were not notified earlier – not actual notification or constructive notification. The students were only told their PSAT scores, which are used to decide on the National Merit Scholars. They cannot assume that they received a National Merit award from their PSAT score.

        You also never addressed why the occupation of a TJHS parent is relevant. Is her skin color or religion also relevant?

        Are you on the payroll of Hunton Williams or any of the law firms representing FCPS and its employees? You’re astroturfing hard.

      • educationrealist

        “The students were not notified earlier ”

        Again, you are completely wrong. The SEMIFINALISTS were notified in September. They were formally notified. It was announced at the district, as it is every year. Over 130 TJ kids were SEMIFINALISTS. And they were notified. Constructively. Actual. They didn’t have to assume they were semifinalists.

        The kids who weren’t notified until November were COMMENDED. Not eligible for anything they wouldn’t be eligible without COMMENDED status.

        Top 3% is a big deal for many kids, but at TJ all the kids in the senior class are still under the old admissions level, and 80% of the kids are top 3%, the rest are top 5. That is why they no longer had a ceremony, which is not constructive or actual notification, but something held long after the fact, usually in May. And TJ doesn’t have it because no one ever showed up. As per the mother’s acknowledgement.

        The fact that the mother is a lawyer is relevant because she has sued the school at least once and is on the committee of parents suing the school to change the admission policies. She’s not just some parent. This wasn’t organic. This whole story is, in fact, astroturf, designed to suck in the ignorant. Like you.

    • Derek


      When you think you’re attacking an opinion piece, but all you’re really doing is demonstrating both ignorance AND an inability to analyze or reason from facts, you should probably stop . . .

      • Lisa

        Of course, EdRealist and her only follower change their tune when she cannot back up her ‘findings.’ You cannot expect much from a woman who memorializes in writing how much disdain she has for immigrants and their parents. See, @edrealist entire Twitter feed, specifically August 28, 2022. She’s not a fan of immigrants getting an education for free. Gasp! You did a racist, EdRealist.

        It is pretty unbelievable that EdRealist is an innovative and popular math teacher. How many National Merit Scholars have you taught? Did you congratulate them for the non-award that is meaningless to university admissions?

        Nevertheless, the wokesters at FCPS were caught. Attorney General Miyares’ investigation will root out the misconduct.

        You still have not justified why you are jealous of a parent who is a lawyer. Why is that?

      • Ying

        I dunno, as a random stranger who only occasionally reads this blog (hence why I’m late to the party), the post reads fairly coherently and the findings seem pretty backed up to me?

        I started off on the other side of the debate so I’m sympathetic to you. You clearly feel really strongly about what happened – I’m assuming you have a child in TJ that was impacted – but reading over the post and your and Ed’s discussion here in the comments, what I see is this:

        1. National Merit Scholar is a term awarded to students who were both ranked Semi-Finalist, and got a scholarship from the NMSC.
        2. Meanwhile, the entire pool of non-finalists, which includes Commended students, are by definition not eligible to be a National Merit Scholar. They are not Semi-Finalists. They are not eligible to get a scholarship from the NMSC.
        3. If Semi-Finalists are not notified, that would be bad because Semi-Finalist is a prestigious award worth noticing, plus they would then not know to follow up on the process of applying for a NMSC scholarship. If any non-finalists, including Commended students, are not notified, it’s not like they had anything to be notified for in the first place! Non-finalists, including Commended students, missed out on no National Honor Society inductions (as non-finalists, they are not eligible) or NMSC scholarships (again, as non-finalists, they are not eligible).
        4. And according to Ed, in direct refutation to you, the Semi-Finalists were notified in early September. I was sympathetic enough to you to Google this for myself on the chance Ed was lying, and… Ed was not lying. “Two Hundred Thirty-Eight FCPS Students Are 2023 National Merit Semifinalists”, a FCPS announcement dated Sept 14, 2022 lists each semi-finalist by name by school.

        I have written this all out to save anyone else the trouble of going back to reread both blog posts, parsing out the arguments in the comments again, and then having to Google shit. Don’t be me.

      • educationrealist

        Sorry I”m late to approve this! And yes, that’s my point.

        Since I wrote this, other schools have turned out not to have notified Commended students at all this year, and I’d like to say I am certain this is not about equity. It’s also not good, because students should get the certificates at some point, just because hey, it’s still nice to hang in mom’s living room.

        I suspect it’s because of a lot of admin turnover and–again–it’s just not that big a deal.

  • ruralcounsel

    Seems to me that students are harmed whenever they aren’t notified of any honor that they could have put on a college application to help their chances of being admitted. It doesn’t have to be just missing out on some money.

    The definition of “harm” here seems very selective in order to claim there was no harm.

    • educationrealist

      I spent quite a bit of time addressing why it wasn’t something that goes on a resume, and it wouldn’t help chances of being admitted. Don’t seem to have much new to add.

      • ruralcounsel

        You don’t determine what goes on someone’s resume, they do. And I said college application, not resume. You have no idea what might help someone get admitted. Any little thing might distinguish one applicant over another. So keep making things up to rationalize your opinion.

      • educationrealist

        I don’t determine what goes on someone’s resume, but I do know what resume points have value or not.

        There is literally nothing that Commended provides that an SAT score doesn’t.

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