Opponents of Grading Policy Turn Out in Force

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009

Hundreds of parents and students filled every auditorium seat, every inch of carpeted floor and even the lobby at Luther Jackson Middle School last night to urge the Fairfax County School Board to align its grading policy with those of most other school systems.

Superintendent Jack D. Dale was expected to recommend that the board maintain the system's relatively tough grading scale but boost the grade-point averages of students in honors or college-level classes. A vote is scheduled for Jan. 22.

"Do not keep a harmful, antiquated grading scale that was instituted almost 30 years ago," Megan McLaughlin, a former Georgetown University admissions officer and Fairfax parent, told the School Board and a cheering crowd decked out in white shirts.

McLaughlin is co-founder and president of Fairgrade, which seeks to overturn the grading policy. The parent organization contends that the system puts Fairfax students at a disadvantage when they seek college admission or scholarships.

The organization has gathered more than 8,000 signatures on a petition to overturn the grading policy

Fairfax high school students must earn at least 94 percent to receive an A and at least 64 percent to pass. In most school systems, 90 percent gets an A, and 60 is a passing grade. Many systems also reward students with a boost in their grade-point average if they take more-challenging courses.

Dale's recommendation is based largely on a study that school officials conducted with help from parents. The study, released last week, found clear evidence that grade-point averages that are weighted to account for more rigorous courses can help students win merit scholarships and gain entrance into college honors programs.

The report also found that students' grades in core classes, such as math and science, are a top consideration in college admission decisions. But Dale said the findings were inconclusive about the contention that the tougher scale put Fairfax students at a disadvantage. He said the higher standards could encourage students to work harder.

"We were trying to get into the black box of decision-making at colleges, but we could not," Dale said during last night's meeting. He said he did not want to propose a new scale without more evidence that it would be beneficial.

But parents maintained that increasing grade-point averages for students in the most challenging classes without also changing the grading scale for all students would increase achievement gaps between students from different economic backgrounds and races.

Todd F. Gaziano, a Fairfax parent and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, highlighted research in the school system's report that tougher grading scales are tied to lower graduation rates for black and Hispanic students.

"It is sadly apparent to me that the current Fairfax County policy not only hurts all Fairfax County students, it tends to harm black and Hispanic students the most."

George Longwell, another parent, said he feared that student athletes also are harmed by the current grading system when they are ranked for athletic slots in Division 1 colleges.

"We have asked them to run 100 yards against their peers, and we have asked them to start 10 yards back."

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