Investigation into Fairfax Co. schools’ National Merit delays unveils miscues, lack of standard protocol

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Michelle Reid on March 29, 2023. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)

An investigation into why some Fairfax County, Virginia, high school students didn’t learn of their National Merit Scholar recognitions last fall unveiled a series of miscues and lack of a countywide procedures for notifying students of the honor.

At a meeting with parents at the public school system’s headquarters Wednesday night, Superintendent Michelle Reid revealed the findings of the Sands Anderson law firm’s report into the delay in notifying students.

About 50,000 students with the highest PSAT scores across the country are recognized by the program as “Commended Students,” but only 16,000 of them are semifinalists and able to compete for scholarships.

The report, Reid said, found that eight of 28 county high schools did not notify students of the honor by Nov. 1. The delays, according to a document shared with families that describes the key findings, “had nothing to do with race or any effort to downplay students’ achievements.” This directly opposes accusations the school system has faced of deliberately not sharing the recognition.

The majority of Fairfax County students weren’t impacted by the delays, Reid said, and logistical factors explain some of the delayed notifications. In 2022, the county had at least 833 students who received Commended Student recognition.

Now, Reid has adopted a policy that requires principals or other school staff members to notify a student and parent of the recognition in writing within two weeks of receiving the information from the NMSC. They also have to disclose how and when the student will receive the award certificate.

Since December, several Northern Virginia school systems have announced that some high school students hadn’t been notified of their National Merit recognition.

“We’re a really large division, and we’re an imperfect people,” Reid said. “And human error does happen and mistakes are made. And in this case, the absence of a division-wide regulation on the specifics on how to handle our National Merit Commended certificates contributed, I believe, to the circumstances that we found ourselves in with the eight schools identified.”

During the somewhat contentious meeting, some parents urged Reid to consider releasing the full report, which she said wouldn’t be made publicly available, citing attorney-client privilege. She said she hopes sharing the key findings would help families regain trust in the administration.

Others expressed frustration that resources were being spent on the investigation instead of supporting students and staff.

The six-page findings document outlines a series of what Reid called logistical factors that contributed to the delays at the eight schools.

In one case, at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the investigation found certificates were delivered to the principal on or around Sept. 15, 2022. Later that month, they were given to the director of student services for completion.

Brandon Kosatka, who according to the school’s website holds that role, “was not aware of any deadline for distribution and because he mistakenly believed at the time, that NMSC directly notified Commended Students of their achievement, he did not prioritize distributing the certificates,” the report said.

Then, in January, other Fairfax County high schools sent messages to families saying they too didn’t notify students of the award.

At Langley High, the delays were attributed to “clerical oversight.” At West Potomac High, staff “reported having no understanding of any required deadline from FCPS or NMSC on the timing of such notification.”

Thomas Edison High usually recognizes its Commended Students at an award ceremony scheduled by the end of October, but it occurred at the end of last November “due to scheduling conflicts.”

Schools in Stafford, Prince William and Loudoun counties have also said there was a delay in recognizing National Merit “Commended Scholars.”

Another investigation

The school system announced it initiated the independent, third-party investigation, but Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares also announced an investigation into the delay.

When asked about the status of the state’s investigation on Wednesday morning, a spokeswoman for Miyares said, “We cannot comment on ongoing investigations.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin said at the time the delay may have violated the Virginia Human Rights Act. Reid had previously attributed the delay to human error and the lack of standard notification process.

In addition to recounting a series of missteps, the report said “the greatest cost of this unfortunate episode has been borne by FCPS staff.”

School staff members, the report said, have been “individually harassed and threatened, including through targeted phone calls and emails using hate-filled and threatening messages.”

“The emotional toll on our staff has been substantial, and, in addition, staff have been required to divert significant time and attention away from their education-focused roles to respond to these inquiries,” it said.

In December, an article in the publication City Journal accused the principal at the prestigious high school of deliberately withholding notification of the recognition.

The story alleged that it was part of the county’s “war on merit” campaign, but the school system said after learning of the issue, it notified students of the honor, and counselors contacted colleges where the students had applied to tell them about the award.

Reid didn’t say when she specifically learned of the delays, adding, “As soon as we were made aware of the reports, we moved to fully investigate and then to address any system concerns that we could improve, so that the system would work and the situation wouldn’t happen again.”

If schools don’t notify students, they can call the National Merit Scholarship Corporation to check their status, a NMSC spokesman previously told WTOP in an email.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up