For years, anxiety and ambition have hung on the letters, but educators now say that the metric is imprecise and does little to reflect a student’s progress, especially in the early years of schooling.
In Fairfax, officials will soon implement a detailed report card that instead uses numeric values from one through four and adds dozens of new categories in which progress will be measured. One Arlington County school has replaced report cards with a long-form narrative, without boiling down the evaluation to numbers or letters.
“This is a huge change of culture,” said Judy Heard, a manager in Fairfax’s instructional services department. “Letter grades have predominated for a long time, but they’ve rarely been well-defined. It’s time for a new approach.”
Not all educators agree. Montgomery County experimented with numerical report cards but backed away from the model after encountering opposition from parents. Prince George’s County schools also tried the numerical model but reversed course, a spokesman said.
Still, public elementary schools in the District moved away from letter grades two years ago. Other school systems, including Alexandria’s, are likely to adopt the new metric but are still finalizing the details.
Schools from New York to California already use similar reports, but Fairfax is among the largest systems to make the change: 40,000 of its students who now receive letter grades will soon bring home numerical report cards.
The new approach marks an attempt to incorporate instructional standards — crafted in recent years by local and state agencies — into the grading process, focusing on a student’s development in more than 50 detailed skill areas. For example, rather than receiving a single grade in math, students will be judged on the one-to-four scale in seven math-related fields, such as computation and measuring.
The new metric marks a significant departure from traditional report cards, which often measure a student’s achievement relative to the rest of the class and do little to break down strengths and weaknesses within a given subject area. But it also means that the bumper-sticker-ready title of an “A” student will in many places become a superlative of the past, replaced with helpful, if clunky, nuance.
Some parents prefer the power of letters.
The new report cards “don’t provide any recognition for a child who is consistently doing excellent work and exceeding the standards,” said Grace Becker, a Fairfax parent who participated in a focus group last year. “We knew what an ‘A’ meant. We knew what a ‘B’ meant. But the new system can be very confusing.”
Letter grades remain the standard for middle and high schools nationwide, in part because of the importance of grade-point averages in college admissions.