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Computer glitches force TJ essay test do-over

Students applying for admission to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology need to retake an essay exam over the next several days as a result of computer problems that plagued the initial administration of the test.

On Saturday, Jan. 25, nearly 1,500 semifinalists in the competitive admissions process for the magnet school showed up at 15 testing sites across Northern Virginia to take the essay exam. About one-third of the students ran into technical issues while taking the computerized test.

As a result, Fairfax County school officials announced that they would scrap the Jan. 25 results and have a complete do-over. This time, though, applicants will be allowed to take the timed test at home between Feb. 6 and Feb. 11.

School officials sent a letter to applicants and their families notifying them of the decision, which they said was made to ensure the application process is fair and equal for all students. The test is available online for multiple days so students can schedule it around their extracurricular activities.

This year marked the first year with the online testing system. Previously, students had written the essay section of the application at home and submitted it in paper form.

The school system made the move to a proctored online exam to limit parental editing and influence on the admissions process. However, when students had trouble saving and submitting their work through the new system, school officials knew they needed to find a solution.

Officials from the Thomas Jefferson admissions office sent a message to applicants’ families immediately following the initial exams. Jeremy Shughart, the school’s director of admissions, promised the school would work on a plan to rectify the situation.

While officials considered allowing students to review their work from the proctored exam online, that idea was discarded. In the end, a complete retake was agreed to be the fairest solution.

Still, some parents expressed worry over their children taking the high stakes test again. While FCPS promised to have the problems resolved for next year, one parent group questions the place of the essay test in the admissions process for the magnet school.

The Fairfax County Association for the Gifted, which came out strongly in admonition of the computer problems, since has released a statement saying the essay test is “overemphasized” and the admissions process needs to be overhauled to better reflect TJ’s mission to serve students “with exceptional quantitative skills.”

“Changing the process may be challenging for FCPS but the outcome for students and support from the community that results will be well worth the effort,” the statement read.

Falls Church High library joins mental, physical fitness

At the Falls Church High School library, students now will be able to give their bodies and their brains a workout.

The library recently added four recumbent exercise bikes. The school hopes the bike will get students to build both their physical and mental muscles.

Librarian Laura Potocki applied for a Healthy Kids Grant to fund the exercise equipment, seeing the bikes as a way to not only promote well-being among students but also as a way to attract a new audience to the library.

She won approval for her grant in October. After that, Potocki and fellow librarian Carrie Kausch researched and purchased the stationary bikes, and spent a recent afternoon assembling them in a corner of the library they have dedicated to health and wellness.

The bikes have proved popular, and already are in use every school day. Students and teachers often come in during free periods and use the bikes while reading newspapers and magazines.

McAuliffe wants to eliminate A-F school grading

Before a new statewide letter grading system for schools even starts, new Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) already is calling for its elimination.

His predecessor, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), signed the A-F school grading system into law last year. Proponents of the plan see it as creating greater accountability for schools and school systems, but McAuliffe worried that it would negatively impact the students and teachers at institutions that perform poorly.

“I don’t like this letter grade for our schools,” McAuliffe said during his first “Ask the Governor” radio show on Richmond station WRVA last week. “The second you give a school an ‘F’ grade, you have stigmatized the students, the teachers, the school, the community.”

Several bills are up for debate in the General Assembly that would cancel the letter grading system for schools, or delay its start, currently scheduled for this year, in order to further study the potential implications.

— Kate Yanchulis