In Grading Levels, The Playing Field Is Seldom Even

By Jay Mathews
Monday, September 15, 2008

If I were the Fairfax County schools superintendent, wondering what to do about a growing parent revolt against the county's tough grading system, I would surrender immediately.

Just look at the rebels' Web site, Their data and arguments are first rate. The leaders of the group, Fair Grades for Fairfax County Students, are professionals, with a passionate following. Giving in to Fairgrade, as it's known, will mean more grade inflation. But so what? Everybody's doing it.

Unfortunately for Superintendent Jack D. Dale and his research team studying the issue, that is not really true. If it were, they could succumb to the inevitable with a clear conscience. The truth is that in this region and the country, nothing about grading is universal or consistent, including the rate of inflation.

The Fairgrade parents have a simple, persuasive request. Junk the Fairfax standard of at least a 94 percent score for an A and switch to the 90 percent benchmark used in the Maryland suburbs, the District, Arlington County, Falls Church and much of the rest of the nation. They also want Fairfax students to get an extra grade point for taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and an extra half-point for honors classes, closer to the system in archrival Montgomery County. Fairfax kids will then no longer be at a disadvantage, Fairgrade says, when competing for scholarships and selective college admissions.

Fairgrade pounds school headquarters with powerful facts. Here are two sentences from its Web site guaranteed to furrow the brow of every McLean parent: "In 2007, only 5 percent of graduating seniors at Langley High School had a weighted [grade-point average] of 4.0 or higher. At Montgomery County's Churchill High, 36 percent of graduating seniors had a weighted GPA of 4.0 or higher." The schools are demographic and academic twins, with some of the wealthiest parents and highest test scores anywhere. Yet Montgomery's decision to give a bonus grade point for all honors, AP and IB courses, rather than Fairfax's half-grade point for AP and IB and no bonus for honors, makes Langley look like Churchill's dumb cousin.

The solution seems simple: Change the Fairfax rules, and all will be well. But that overlooks the wider significance of these wildly varying numbers. What happens, for instance, if Howard and Loudoun counties -- jealous of their big Montgomery and Fairfax neighbors -- decide to give their students 1 1/2 points extra for each AP grade?

The pedagogical arms race has been going on for some time. Bruce Poch, admissions dean at Pomona College, revealed in a Kaplan-Newsweek college guide (published by a unit of The Washington Post Co.) that the national mean grade-point average for students taking the SAT in 2006 to 2007 was 3.33. That means "a B-plus is now 'average,' " he wrote.

This drives students, parents and college counselors crazy. College admissions officers sometimes say they don't like it either, but guess what: Their hands are not clean. Their bosses want to improve their colleges' market positions, said Andrew Flagel, admissions dean at George Mason University. "Parents and students believe that a school with higher GPAs and scores for entering students is 'better,' " he said, "so the school gets higher ranks, more applicants" and other goodies if applicants with inflated grades enroll.

Fairfax parents may feel better if Fairgrade gets its way, but this is a big country with many other grade-distorting factors. States have different grading cultures. One study revealed that 49 percent of SAT takers in Texas, but only 29 percent in Connecticut, reported A averages. The rates for Maryland (38 percent) and Virginia (37 percent) were in the middle of the national scale, but the D.C. rate was only 30 percent. Grading also varies by subject. Researchers at Harvard University and the University of Virginia have recommended that high school science courses add half a grade point for honors and a full point for AP to be consistent with other courses. And everyone knows that teachers in adjoining classrooms often have very different ideas about how many students should get an A.

There are ways to give all students and parents, not just those in Fairfax, more confidence that they are not being shortchanged. Some districts have adopted universal final exams in some subjects. AP, IB and Cambridge tests are graded by outside experts who use common scoring guides.

As hard as it might be to believe, high school grades still predict college success as well as or better than standardized tests, particularly for minority students. Ken O'Connor, author of a recent Educational Testing Service book on grading, wonders if this means that "college grading is as bad or worse."

With the experts so perplexed, what should the Fairfax grading researchers do? Give up, I say. Grant Fairgrade parents their wishes. Join the rest of the region in its inflated state and hope the whole thing does not some day blow up in our faces.


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