Association for Education Fairness

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A Brief Introduction of Magnet Program Reform in MCPS

By Alex Zhong


As a father of three children, I am very concerned. I am concerned about the quality of the education they will get. I am concerned about whether they will get fair treatment in the society.

On 09/13/2018, NYC published one report about what happened around me. However, I do not think it proportionally present the story from the view of parents.


I live in Montgomery County, Maryland. It is one of the wealthiest counties in our country, and the public school system was also considered top-notch in the nation. However, in the past years, the quality of public school is getting worse. One evidence is that the best high schools in Maryland is less and less competitive nationally. {Now based on the recently published PARCC results, the school system only ranked #7 in the state. We can use PARCC results. I will forward the raw data to you.} My children often came and said they were repeating things they knew long time ago. Only when they got into the talented/gifted program (CES center in our local system), they found school life fun. I thought I could relief, but here came another challenge. We were told that we were over represented in the gifted programs. Then the school system changed the screening and admission policies. Today I will share with you what I observed in the system and I hope more and more people can realize such policy change did harm to our children, to our school system and to the future of our country.

Part 1: Introduction to reform

Metis Report Recommendation 3a and opposition

On 03/08/2016, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) published one report in its website. The report is called “Study of Choice and Special Academic Programs, Report of Findings and Recommendations”. It was submitted to Montgomery County Board of Education that MCPS planned to carry out a reform.

Washington Post discussed this event on 3/21/2018, “Maryland school district examines racial disparities in its gifted programs”. It is clear that one of the purposes of the change to the magnet middle school process was to create more racial balancing in the programming.

Many parents reading this news were concerned, so they read the original MCPS report. MCPS stated that it would change Magnet Program/HGC admission based on Recommendation 3a in the report.

(The whole report could be downloaded here. https://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/uploadedFiles/info/choice/ChoiceStudyExecutiveSummaryFinal20160331.pdf

The Washington Post article can be retrieved here.


The Recommendation 3a on page 5 of this Metis report says "Recommendation 3a: Implement modifications to the selection process used for academically competitive programs in MCPS, comprising elementary centers for highly gifted students and secondary magnet programs, to focus these programs on selecting equitably from among those applicants that demonstrate a capacity to thrive in the program, that include use of non-cognitive criteria, group-specific norms that benchmark student performance against school peers with comparable backgrounds, and/or a process that offers automatic admissions to the programs for students in the top 5-10% of sending elementary or middle schools in the district."

Here is the original wording of Key Finding 3. “Key Finding 3: There are significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in the enrollment and acceptance rates to academically selective programs, which suggest a need to revise the criteria and process used to select students for these programs to eliminate barriers to access for highly able students of all backgrounds.”

MCPS held 3 hearing in 3 schools in April and May 2016, to see how the parents would respond to the planned reform. Hundreds of parents attended hearings, clearly and strongly opposed Recommendation 3a. They held hand-made signs of “one standard for all” and “No 3a”.

It is disappointing that the Washington Post report following up this topic did not present what happened in the hearing of the 3 schools. The title of report on 06/01/2016 was “Report on racial disparities in gifted and magnet programs gets strong reaction”. I can show you scores of pictures of these hearings and you can see how prevailing the opposing parents were. However, MCPS said they heard the parents’ voice but did not make it clear whether they were going to implement recommendation 3a or not.


Part 2: The problems of Magnet Program Admission and Appeal

On 2/15/2018, many parents in Montgomery County were shocked to receive denial from MCPS, for their children’s application to Magnet Programs. I was one of them. I was shocked not only because my family was very confident about our child. Moreover, it was bizarre to reconcile the high score that my child got and denial decision. MCPS provided no clear explanation for their decision.

In this denial letter, my child was top 2 percent students. If the magnet programs were picking the top students, they have more than enough capacity to take the top 3 percent students. From the social media wechat, I heard that some top 1 percent students were also denied. All the denial letters to the parents were exactly the same, except the children’s identity information and performance. MCPS claims that the local middle schools will fit well the students’ need, although these students are very different concerning their strength, disadvantage, and future middle schools. In this denial letter, we were also given 7 days to appeal.

I spent scores of hours talking to teachers, principles and other parents. During this process, I heard that MCPS held a meeting with teachers concerning the reform of Magnet Program admission, and the teachers heard two points: 1. The reform is to fix the racial imbalance. 2. From now on, the teachers’ input will not be considered in the admission process.

I wrote an appeal letter of 17 pages, in which 11 pages of solid and public data. Unfortunately, my appeal was rejected. My friends and I shared our experience and found that the denial letters for our appeals were also the same and did not address any specific points we put forward in the appeal letters.

Imagine that, different parents, talking about very different children from different school districts, arguing against denial in very different angles, got exactly the same answers! “Did the Level I Appeal Committee read our appeal letters?” “Did they care what we wrote?” I had so many questions in my mind when I saw the cookie cutter responses. The denial letter does not talk about any of the 11-pages of solid data which I used for argument in the appeal letter. The denial letter does not talk about any facts I talked about in the 5 pages of arguments. They also did not provide their own reason to reject my child in their argument. In these letters, there is nothing specific about my child.

Of course, I am not satisfied with this kind of response. I submitted Level II Appeal and hope this time MCPS will read the case carefully. Again, same thing happened. Nobody cares what kind of student my child is, and nobody cares what other school she would be in, if she is not admitted to the magnet program. I received a denial letter with a plain template inserted with student’s ID. MCPS kept telling me that the assigned school could meet my child’s educational need, completely ignoring the facts that my child is gifted from many aspects, while in the assigned school only 20% students could pass in Math or English, and far less than 5% of the students could exceeded the expectation in Math or English.

With lots of doubt that the admission process and the appeal process, I asked for data about what kinds of students were admitted in Magnet Program. Nobody in MCPS would give me such data. In the past, they always showed the median scores of admitted. Why do they stop showing this year?

Starting on 04/19/2018, my friends and I filed complaint to Federal Department of Education, Office of Civil Right. We seriously doubt there was discrimination or unfair process in selection and appeal steps.

Part 3: Nontransparancy, Confusion and possible discrimination?

Many puzzled parents sensed that there was probably a factor of racial discrimination in this process, so at least 9 of them filed complaint to Federal Department of Education, Office of Civil Right.

On 04/24/2018, I presented my testimony “Nontransparency in Magnet Program Admission and Appeal Process should be corrected” in Montgomery County BOE meeting, public comment session, but I did not get any feedback from MCPS and BOE. You can get my testimony here. https://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/mcpsmd/Board.nsf/files/AY5SFF72324E/$file/Alex%20Zhong.pdf

I was very puzzled. Is this in USA? Is this MCPS of the people, by the people and for the people?

Also later on 04/24/2018, MCPS published the Magnet Program admission data and showed that Asian Americans students’ Magnet Program admission rate has been decreased by 20% consecutively in 2017 and 2018 after the Metis report was published. Please note that there are only two Magnet Programs in down county of MCPS, while there are about 8,000 elementary school students in this area. Eastern Middle School is for humanity. Takoma Park Middle School (TPMS or TP) is for STEM.

MCPS Magnet Program admission selecting criteria, if there were criteria, and/or selection procedures caused disparate impact on Asian Americans. At this moment, many Asian American parents realized that MCPS did not at all hear our voice in 2016, as I presented in part 1.

In addition to this, MCPS used multiple measures, without making it clear to public how different factors were weighted and integrated. MCPS rejected significant numbers of highly gifted students, who is not only having 4x99% on CogAT scores but also excellent in all other MCPS measures. In the past, MCPS always published the median scores of students who got admitted. This year, they chose not to. This has caused great confusion and frustration among current and future 5th graders and their families.

On 04/30/2018, MCPS held a public meeting to share the admission outcome parents who wants to know more about Magnet Program reform. Hundreds of parents flooded the auditorium and some parents stood in the hall way because they could not fit in the crowded room. When the session came for the parents to ask questions, they made up two long line in less than one minutes.

The concerned and angry parents asked whether there were criteria for the MCPS to select the students for Magnet Programs and whether such criteria could be published. The MCPS representative, Ms. Lori-Christina Webb, an MCPS director who led the project, said it was a holistic approach but did not introduce how holistic review was conducted and common rubric that reviewers have to follow to ensure the consistency across many reviewers when evaluating 4000+ students. Many parents kept pushing for such an answer but none of them were successful. Among all criteria, MCPS added one “cohort” criteria, claiming if a school has more than 20 peers, a student would be considered as having cohort at home school. However, MCPS did not inform the public how the peer or the cohort is defined.

One parent also shared some unbelievable facts at the meeting. First, one student who is extremely excellent in math got admission to the magnet program focusing on humanity, and another student who is extremely excellent in English got admission to the magnet program focusing on science and engineering. Second, there are twin students in one family, and the one performed better academically got denial and the other performed worse academically got admission.

So we can see that the admission procedures are messed up with the reform.

After the meeting, many parents were curious and furious and collectively demanded total transparency in MCPS magnet program admission. While unusual number of students have requested data and appealed separately, MCPS has not yet responded with a county-wide statistics to ensure the fairness of the admission, nor addressed county residents' concerns for future changes.

Parents have exhausted almost all possible means to communicate with MCPS and requested Magnet admission data; as far as I know, no one got a clear and reasonable answer from MCPS yet. The parents who requested such data told me that MCPS received over 200 counts of data request, and none of these parents got the data even after they tried many times to ask for data, citing FERPA (Family Education Right and Privacy Act).

Observing the admission outcome and no clear explanation from MCPS, we are very concerned that whether MCPS uses “reverse discrimination” in the admission process and education system just to close the achievement gap.

Part 4: Biased Media Coverage

However, even after there were so many problems exposed, the national or local media ignored the angry parents’ voices. For example, Bethesda Magazine call the reform a success. This report mentioned the admitted Hispanic and African American students increased, but ignored the big decrease in Asian American students, though this is the second year to get decrease as big as 20%. What’s worse, it did not mention anything about how concerned and angry parents opposed such a reform. (http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Beat/2018/MCPS-Pilots-Universal-Evaluation-Process-for-Middle-School-Magnet-Programs/)

On 09/13/2018, NYT reported about this topic. It did a better job and reported that there was a huge drop in the number of Asian American, from 2017 to 2018. It does not mention there was another big drop from 2016 to 2017.


The NYT report failed to cover anything about the problems of selection criteria and nontransparancy, which the parents opposed most.

Summary of Serious Problems in MCPS.

1. They think “significant racial…disparities in the enrollment and acceptance rates to academically selective programs” is a big problem but did not address the fundamental problem rooted in the academic achievements.

2. To fix such a problem, they intended to apply different criteria to different groups of students.

3. They heard much opposition but they ignored. They carried out their plan without being noticed for one year.

4. The selection criteria for magnet program are not objective, consistent, reasonable or transparent.

5. The appeal mechanism is not set up to correct the problem in selection.

6. They refused to disclose data to ensure the selection process is fair.

Part 5 Similar practices outside MCPS

Did such things happen before? Yes, you can see this WSJ report in 2002.


In this WSJ report in 2002, we can see a story for a poor Korean American student, who was rejected with high. I read some shocking parts here.

"Former UCLA admissions director Rae Lee Siporin says the new system also was intended to make the student body as reflective as possible of the state's population. She says UCLA determined that simply using poverty as an index of disadvantage would reduce diversity, because it wouldn't help middle-class blacks and Hispanics and it would "pull in" lots of low-income Asians.

Latino legislative leader Marco Antonio Firebaugh, a force behind adoption of the new system, agrees: "We found that using poverty yields a lot of poor white kids and poor Asian kids," he says. The formulas UCLA and other campuses chose instead give hefty boosts to the students -- predominantly Hispanic and African-American -- who attend low-performing high schools targeted by university outreach programs."

This is not to help people in the adversity! This is racial discrimination!

Do we observe similar incidents outside MCPS nowadays? Yes! There are two big events that caught the nation’s attention.

In New York City, the Mayor Bill de Blasio thought there was diversity problems in the specialized high schools and proposed to get rid of the selection criteria SHSAT. (https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/ny/2018/06/02/mayor-bill-de-blasio-new-york-city-will-push-for-admissions-changes-at-elite-and-segregated-specialized-high-schools/)

There is an ongoing lawsuit with Harvard. Based on the recent court filing, Asian American students scored lower on the personality trait. Harvard’s internal investigation into its admissions policies in 2013 found a bias against Asian-American applicants. (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/us/harvard-asian-enrollment-applicants.html)

Did NYC major and Harvard University hear opposition? Did they improve?

Did Harvard University use non-objective and non-transparent criteria?

Did Harvard refused to disclose admission data?

On a more regional extent, we knew there was similar change in the GT program in Washington State.

Why is there not proportional coverage on such terrible discrimination?

Thus, we have strong believe that there is a national trend, which is trying to implement racial discrimination, in the name of correcting “racial disparity”. What will the US get with such a national trend? We do not have any observation for the future. However, history is repeating itself, and old stories might tell us more than what we just observed around us.

Such a practice will not solve any problem, but only make the situation worse. It oppresses honest hard work. It robs the resources from some people who can make full use of them, and give such resources who cannot make full use of. It will make the education quality worse and worse, because the high performer needs to slow down to wait while the low performer could not catch up. If divides people. It makes some race hate some other races more than before. The education system will fail, and this county will fail if we do not stop this trend.

Many people share Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Quote By Martin Luther King, Jr. Quotes.

We, Association for Education Fairness also believe that, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Quote By John G. Roberts Jr.

The end.

[Acknowledgement: Ms Yinan Liu and Ms Tao Chen helped a lot by revising the draft. Thanks.]