By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009
The Fairfax County School Board voted unanimously late last night to abandon a strict grading policy it has long upheld as a hallmark of high standards, after a year of intense pressure from parents who have argued that the policy hurts students' chances for college admission or scholarships.
The School Board decided to move toward a more commonly used grading scale that parents have championed. The board also approved a plan to add extra points to the grade-point averages of students who take college level or honors classes.
Two board members, Kaye Kory (Mason) and Martina A. Hone (At Large), were absent for the 10 to 0 vote.
At issue is what it means to earn an A or to pass. Currently, Fairfax students must score 94 percent to earn an A and 64 percent to pass. In most school systems, including those in Montgomery and Arlington counties, 90 percent is an A and 60 percent is a passing grade. Many school systems also add points to the GPAs of students who take more challenging classes.
The School Board agreed last night to adopt a 10-point grading scale allowing for pluses and minuses on grades, to be implemented by September, but to ask Superintendent Jack D. Dale to propose a specific design for the scale by the end of March, including a decision on whether the bar for passing a class should drop to 60 percent or whether it should stay at 64 percent.
"We're not lowering standards but adopting a more standard language," Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) said in an interview yesterday. "It's important that parents feel there is enough of a level playing field that their students are being looked at in the appropriate light along with the other schools in the nation," she said.
At the board meeting last night, she listed several high-profile school systems that use the more common scale. "I think it's time," she told hundreds of cheering parents. "We need to tip our hand and say this is where we are going."
The debate has centered on academic integrity and fairness. In the past, School Board members have defended the tough grading system as an asset to a school system that sets a high bar for success.
Parents have said it puts their children at a disadvantage when applying for college admission or scholarships.
In recent months, the School Board saw more organized opposition from parents armed with research showing that other highly regarded school systems use a 10-point scale. So a score of 93 is an A in Arlington and a B+ in Fairfax.
Aided by technology, and fueled by insecurity about the competition for college and jobs, Fairfax parents have turned out in force to advocate a change. An online petition garnered more than 10,000 signatures, and hundreds of supporters have turned out for board meetings.
"Two weeks ago, the public showed up in this auditorium by the hundreds to show you they have lost confidence in our current grading policy. Tonight, they are here asking you to restore that confidence by voting tonight for a new grading policy," said Catherine Lorenze, a spokeswoman for Fairgrade, a group that was started last winter by four mothers, including a former Georgetown University admissions officer.
Dale recommended in early January that the board maintain the current tougher scale and the rigor he said it represents. But many board members said it was time for a change.
Parents and school officials have sporadically challenged the grading scale, which many said they find to be unnecessarily confusing.
Robert R. Spillane, a former Fairfax superintendent, said he questioned the system when he arrived in Fairfax in 1985 but was quickly discouraged from challenging it.
"It's always been fiercely protected," he said. "It has the aura of, 'We are tougher and we are better and our kids are smarter and we are more demanding on our children than other places.' "
The outpouring of concern from parents led the school system last spring to launch a study of whether Fairfax's system was punitive.
The results of the survey of college admissions policies and other grading systems, released in early January, showed that adding points to GPAs can make a difference in decisions about scholarships and admission to college honors programs. The report was less conclusive on whether the Fairfax grading scale helped or hurt students.
After the report was released, Dale proposed giving students a half-point boost for taking honors classes and one extra point for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes. Students currently earn no extra credit for honors classes and a half-point for college-level courses. Student transcripts note the more difficult courses.
The extra credit for most college-level courses would be retroactive, so seniors' first-semester GPAs would be recalculated and updated transcripts would be sent to colleges.
The extra credit for honors classes might not go into effect until September so that the school system has time to clarify what defines an honors class.