Superintendent denies accusations awards were withheld from overachieving students to prevent hurt feelings

Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 2:54 PM EST
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FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. (CNN) – Virginia’s state attorney general is investigating a National Merit awards controversy in Fairfax County, where multiple high schools delayed notifying students about their National Merit Scholarships but called it human error.

Parents and other critics said the lapse was intentional, and now the Fairfax County Schools superintendent is disagreeing.

The decision of the schools has received criticism from Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin slammed dozens of high schools for failing to notify students that their PSAT scores won them commendations as part of the annual National Merit Scholarship competition.

“It impacts their ability to apply to college for scholarships, and this idea of a golden ticket, as it is called, was withheld from them,” Youngkin said.

Shawna Yashar is the parent of a student who received the National Merit award.

“We didn’t receive it until Nov. 21 after the deadline had passed for early admissions and early acceptance,” she said. “So, we don’t know. I mean, we’re still waiting to hear back from colleges. We’ve gotten a few rejections.”

The governor argued the commendations were withheld intentionally to avoid hurting the feelings of students who didn’t win recognition.

“They have a maniacal focus on equal outcomes for all students at all costs,” he said.

Dr. Michelle Reid, the superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, said that characterizing the National Merit award as a golden ticket would not be accurate.

“What I mean when I talk about equal outcomes is the opportunity for each and every student to achieve their unique potential,” she said.

In response to the awards being withheld as intentional, Reid said the schools recognize the contributions of all of their students.

“We celebrate each and every one of our students’ unique contributions and achievements, and there is absolutely no division-wide effort to withhold recognition or not to honor hard work and achievement.”

Virginia’s attorney general is now investigating high schools across Fairfax County after eight of them delayed telling students they had been commended, including Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the top-ranked high school in the country.

“We did initiate a third party external review into the situation,” Reid said.

In a letter to the community, Reid said the delay was likely due to “human error.”

“We committed to contacting all the colleges and universities of the early action, early decision schools that otherwise our commended scholars might not have had that information to notify,” she said.

Lost in this war of words, students who were recognized with the commendation are actually out of the competition for National Merit Scholarships.

Riti Liu, a student, said she may have even thrown hers away.

“I didn’t really think much of it,” she said. “I didn’t put it, like, anywhere in my, like, honor section for college apps.”

Youngkin has proposed legislation in the general assembly to require that schools notify commended students immediately.

Rei’s office is already drafting division-wide guidance to do just that.