By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Marcy Newberger grew up in Montgomery County and attended Churchill High School. Then she moved to Fairfax County and had children, who attended McLean High School. Both were fine schools in good systems, with one irritating difference.
Simply put, Fairfax high schools set a higher bar for grades than those in Montgomery. To earn an A in Fairfax, it takes a score of 94 to 100. In Montgomery, it takes a score of 90 or higher. Standards for grading in the two counties, including bonus point calculations, are so out of sync that it appears possible for a Fairfax student to earn a 3.5 grade-point average for the same work that gets a Montgomery student a 4.6 GPA.
Parents nationwide are increasingly frustrated with wild variations in grading systems that, they say, are costing their children thousands of dollars in merit-based scholarships and leaving them disadvantaged in college admissions.
Sensitivity to grading is particularly acute in Fairfax and Montgomery -- large, affluent counties that send more students to college each year than other local school systems. But grading disparities also have enraged students and parents elsewhere.
In Simsbury, Conn., parents stumbled onto SAT survey data that showed that teachers in their state were unusually tough graders. Just 29 percent of SAT test takers in Connecticut reported A averages, compared with 40 percent in California, 42 percent in Florida and 49 percent in Texas.
"There are no effective standards," said Robert Hartranft, a retired nuclear engineer from Simsbury who has scrutinized the issue. "Local grades and local GPAs are a crazy quilt of numerical values and systems."
Fairfax and Montgomery school officials reject the idea that grading discrepancies hurt students. Betsy Brown, Montgomery's director of curriculum and instruction, said colleges know grading systems vary and "work to even out what may be uneven across school systems and differences between private and public schools."
Fairfax schools spokesman Paul Regnier said the county's students have done well in college admissions. He said people who want to change grading rules assume that college admissions officials "are inept and can be fooled. We believe it is a bad assumption."
Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College, said his school and others do not depend only on GPAs in awarding merit scholarships. "Parents need to chill out about grades," he said.
But demographer Sara Pacqué-Margolis, a Fairfax parent who with Newberger is surveying 60 colleges on this issue, said policies at Indiana University, Purdue University and the University of Miami show that Fairfax penalizes its students by failing to give the same grade-point bonuses as Montgomery for high-level courses. For example, Montgomery awards a bonus point for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate grades; Fairfax gives an extra half-point for AP and IB. Pacqué-Margolis said guidelines for merit scholarships at the three universities are based on a minimum SAT or ACT score and GPAs taken from high school transcripts, often inflated by bonus points. She said her son, an Indiana undergraduate, would have received thousands of dollars more in merit-based scholarships over four years if Fairfax had used Montgomery's bonus-point system.
While suburban parents suggest more reliance on the SAT and other national tests, advocates for low-income urban and rural students are calling for the opposite -- more emphasis on classroom grades, in which students from poor families are at less of a disadvantage.
The issue is complex and confusing, with little research to back either side. Governments are spending millions of dollars on analysis of standardized tests, but officials rarely provide much detailed information on grades, even though grades have more of an effect on students' lives. A failing grade on a report card can force a student to repeat a class and jeopardize college admissions, whereas a bad state test score usually has no effect.
In recent years, it has often been parents, not school officials, who have researched grading policies and called for changes. Newberger, a former teacher, and Pacqué-Margolis are gathering information they hope will convince Fairfax school officials that county students are hurt by rules that say 94 to 100 percent is an A (90 to 100 is an A in the Maryland suburbs, the District, Arlington and Falls Church). They also complain of bewildering differences in the way local schools award extra points for honors and college-level courses.
Often, teachers find ways to give as many A's as they like, no matter what their school's grading policy is. "Any teacher can make up an assessment on which many students or none will get 90 or 94," grading expert Ken O'Connor said. He has written a book for the Educational Testing Service that says grading standards should be made clearer and that practices such as grading on the curve or on attendance should be eliminated.
Hartranft said he has detected grade variations by year, by region (with New England tougher than the rest of the country) and by subject (with good math and science grades hardest to get). Scholars Philip M. Sadler of Harvard University and Robert H. Tai of the University of Virginia say their data show that high school science grades would be fairer and more consistent if schools added half a grade point for an honors course and one point for AP courses.
According to Hartranft's research, teachers in the Washington area grade harder on average than teachers in the Sunbelt, but are somewhat more generous than those in Connecticut. Among SAT test takers in the Class of 2007 asked about their grades, 38 percent in Maryland, 37 percent in Virginia and 30 percent in the District said they had A-plus, A or A-minus averages. The survey included students from public and private schools. D.C. students who reported A-minus averages had an average combined score of 1127 on the SAT math and reading sections. Maryland's A-minus students had a 1098 combined score and Virginia's a 1095. Connecticut's A-minus students had an 1146, while those in Texas had a 1039. Such data suggest that an A-minus is worth more in some places than others.
A College Board spokeswoman cautioned that the data need more analysis because Hartranft is comparing states with different SAT test-taking rates. Experts also note that the data rely on student recollections of grades, not transcripts.
Some scholars and college officials recommend giving more consideration to grades, despite variations. Researchers Saul Geiser and Maria Veronica Santelices, in a June report for the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley, concluded that high school grades -- like all measures of student achievement -- have flaws but are better predictors of performance in college than standardized test scores. The researchers, looking at the academic records of almost 80,000 U.C. students, said grades have another advantage: They are "much less closely correlated with student socioeconomic characteristics than standardized tests." A college that emphasized grades in admissions would be more likely to find low-income minorities who would do well in college, they said.
"High-school grades provide a fairer, more equitable and ultimately more meaningful basis for admissions decision-making and, despite their reputation for 'unreliability,' remain the best available indicator with which to hazard predictions of student success in college," Geiser and Santelices wrote.