At Forum, College Officials Assess Tough Grading Policy's Effect

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Several college officials told Fairfax County parents and students yesterday that easing the school system's grading policy could help students win some scholarships but probably would not improve their chances of admission to nearby competitive colleges.

Speaking on a panel at Luther Jackson Middle School in the Falls Church area, Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University, said there is no "secret formula" for college admissions.

College officials stressed that they consider students individually and factor in the school system's reputation.

"The reality is that everyone can't get into the school they want," Flagel said.

As competition for admission to top colleges intensifies and tuition costs move out of reach for many families, a parent-led movement to abandon the Fairfax grading system is gaining momentum. Fairfax's policy requires a score of at least 94 percent for an A and gives no extra credit for honors courses. Many comparable school systems, including Montgomery County's, give A's for lower scores.

That means students elsewhere could graduate with higher grade-point averages -- on a four-point scale -- than their Fairfax counterparts with similar academic accomplishments. Many school systems also give more credit for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses than Fairfax does. Fairfax awards half a point.

"I want to level the playing field, and I want to do it this year," said Megan McLaughlin, a former Georgetown University admissions officer and co-founder of a parent group called Fairgrade. Her comments drew cheers from many in the audience.

A small group of parents banded together with McLaughlin to work for a change in the policy last winter. They researched the patchwork of grading policies across the country and found grades were depressed among Fairfax students, making it harder to win scholarships and entrance into some colleges and honors programs. They presented their findings at community meetings and developed an online petition asking the school system to alter its policy. The petition has garnered nearly 6,000 signatures. A student-organized Facebook page promoting a change in grading policy has about 1,500 members.

Last spring, the school system began a study of how its policy compares with others across the country and whether county students are at a disadvantage. Patrick Murphy, the county's assistant superintendent for accountability, said he expects to report findings to Superintendent Jack D. Dale by late fall.

At yesterday's forum, attended by more than 200 people, a recent McLean High School graduate told the audience that his 3.4 GPA would have been a 4.1 if he had graduated from a Montgomery school. One mother said her son, now at the U.S. Naval Academy, did not qualify for some merit-based scholarships at state universities because his GPA was too low.

The forum included admissions counselors from the University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. The counselors said they keep close tabs on the school system, which supplies many applicants, and would adapt to whatever policy Fairfax chooses.

Shannon Gundy, U-Md.'s director of undergraduate admissions, said admissions officers elsewhere in the country might be less familiar with the school system's unusual grading policy. "If I were a parent in Fairfax County, I would want it changed," Gundy said after the forum.

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