Schools to Study Grading Practices

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008

Fairfax County school officials have agreed to review their grading policies in response to parents' concerns that relatively stringent standards mean their children are losing out on scholarships and college admissions.

More than 2,800 parents and students signed an online petition urging the school system to adopt a 10-point grading scale and give extra weight for honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. The current system requires a score of 94 or higher for an A, and gives no extra credit to honors courses. AP courses are given half a point.

Many competing school systems, including Montgomery County, give A's for lower scores and graduate students with similar backgrounds but higher GPA's, the parents contend. Their concerns come as competition for admission to big-name colleges is at a high and tuition more expensive than ever.

Louise Epstein, president of the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted, said the current policies are unfair. "They cost families money and reduce good opportunities for students just because they go to Fairfax schools," she said.

In January, Epstein joined three other parents, including a demographer, a former Fairfax teacher, and a former Georgetown University admissions officer, to lobby for a new grading scale. Armed with extensive research about the patchwork grading and admissions policies around the country, they organized several community meetings to convince parents that Fairfax's policies put students at a competitive disadvantage.

Meetings at McLean High and Langley High each drew more than 100 parents. Meetings are scheduled at Centreville High, Herndon High and South County Secondary in the next few weeks. A presentation in Korean is scheduled for May 2 in Tysons Corner.

Historically, school officials have contended that Fairfax students fare well in college admissions and that colleges understand there are different grading scales and know how to evaluate applicants accordingly. The Fairfax parents acknowledge that Virginia public colleges understand the rigor of the system, but found many out-of-state and private schools consider grade point averages at face value and use strict cutoffs to determine who receives merit scholarships or honors placement.

After a flurry of parent e-mails and contacts, Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale requested a meeting with the parents earlier this month and decided that staff should work with them to review the policies.

Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko said the school system wants to determine whether grade distribution in Fairfax differs from school systems with other grading policies. Officials also plan to survey college admissions officers to determine whether their system has a negative impact on admissions, honors placement, or merit scholarships.

"We are willing to take a look to see what's the best thing to do with our students," he said.

School officials also want to make sure that any change would not lessen the rigor of the current system. One concern is "that lessening or broadening the scale will result in inflation of grades," Moniuszko said.

But parent Marcy Newberger, the former teacher helping spearhead the push for change, said the current system is the "opposite of grade inflation."

"I saw my kids working their little tails off in honors classes" when they could have earned the same grade with less effort in regular classes, she said, yet their grade point average does not reflect that.

Parent Megan McLaughlin, a former admissions counselor, said she thinks the Fairfax policy sends the wrong message to students.

"How do you tell a student who is already in a highly competitive school system that their 83 makes them a C-plus student? . . . It gives them a false sense of their own academic potential," she said.

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