Fairfax Schools Chief Wants to Keep Grading System

By Michael Alison Chandler and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 3, 2009

A long-awaited Fairfax County school system report released yesterday found no conclusive evidence that the county's tough grading policy hurts students' chances of gaining admission to college but said it could hamper their ability to get into honors programs or earn some scholarships.

In response to the report, Superintendent Jack D. Dale announced that he will recommend to the School Board that the school system maintain its strict grading scale. But Dale said he would propose that Fairfax students get a bump in their grade-point average when they complete honors and college-level classes to make them more competitive. A vote on the grading policy is scheduled for Jan. 22.

"There is no perfect solution or research study that says, 'Here is what you should do,' " Dale said yesterday. "One thing we hear over and over is that we need to maintain rigorous standards."

The report was prompted by a year-long parent-led campaign to change the grading policy and level the playing field for students, who policy opponents say are not being graded fairly. Fairfax high school students are required to earn at least 94 percent to earn an A and at least 64 percent to pass a class. Most school systems in the country use a 10-point scale, meaning that 90 percent gets an A and 60 is a passing grade. Many already give students' GPAs a bigger boost for more challenging courses.

Montgomery and Arlington counties, Falls Church and the District are among those that use the 10-point grading scale. The report documented a clear national trend toward standardizing what has historically been a piecemeal and confusing grading process.

More than 75 school divisions have adopted a 10-point grading scale in the past three years, including the District. Stafford County's School Board voted last month to switch to a 10-point scale, and many Loudoun County parents are advocating a similar scale. Some Loudoun board members have indicated they are likely to follow whatever Fairfax decides. The report found no schools that had gone in the other direction.

Fairfax school officials have argued that lowering the bar could lead to grade inflation. But a growing army of parents, fueled by increased competition for entrance to colleges and mounting pressures on family finances, are resisting the 30-year-old system. More than 8,000 people have signed a petition to switch to a 10-point scale and give students more credit for harder classes.

Leaders of a parent advocate group said yesterday that they were frustrated to learn of Dale's recommendation and argued that his proposal would be a partial fix. They said Dale is discounting the study's research showing how depressed the grades are in Fairfax compared with other school systems.

The 120-page report -- the product of more than 1,800 hours of staff time, a $30,000 consultant's fee and thousands of hours from parent volunteers -- compared the GPA distribution in Fairfax to those of 35 schools using a 10-point scale and found that Fairfax students consistently had lower grades.

Parents argue that their students are earning some of the top SAT scores in the country and spending extra hours studying for college-level classes but are not getting the grade-point averages that reflect their abilities or efforts.

For those Fairfax students who scored between a 1200 and 1249 on the math and verbal sections of the SAT, only 5 percent had a GPA of 4.0 or higher, the report found. That compares with 27 percent of non-Fairfax students who scored above the straight-A mark.

"Right now, we are not even in the ballpark," said Louise Epstein, a gifted-student advocate and one of the founding members of FAIRGRADE, the parent group that has worked to change the grading scale and give students more credit for advanced courses.

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