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Enthusiasm in Fairfax For Grade Policy Change
Parents, Students Say System Will Promote Fairness

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sydney Sampson, 16, was getting ready for school at 5:30 a.m. yesterday when her father told her that the Fairfax County School Board had voted to abandon the tough grading policy that thousands of parents and students had rallied against.

"I started doing a little happy dance around my room," the Madison High School sophomore said.

Sydney, who gets mostly A's and takes two Advanced Placement courses, said the school system's current grading scale does not show what Fairfax students "are capable of." She hopes the new policy will better showcase her academic achievements when she applies for college. Her dream since age 4 has been to go to the University of Virginia, she said.

Her enthusiasm for the change in policy was shared around the county. Students and parents have been lobbying for years for the change, citing intense competition for spots at select colleges. On Thursday night, the board relented.

The decades-old policy set the bar for earning an A at 94 and the bar for passing at 64. Most school systems use what is called a 10-point scale, under which scores between 90 and 100 earn an A. At those schools, 60 often is a passing score.

Many districts also add points to grade-point averages for students who take college-level or honors courses. Thousands of Fairfax parents and students have maintained that a more commonly used, and more generous, grading policy would help seniors who are vying for college admissions and scholarships.

"The depth of the concern was tremendous," said School Board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville).

The board's unanimous vote in favor of the more common system acknowledged the anxiety, as well as the fact that today's students are taking tougher classes and attending college in greater numbers, Strauss said. But she cautioned parents about being overly optimistic about what the change will bring.

"This is not a magic bullet. The stress on kids to get into college, the stress of paying for college is not going away," she said.

A school system report showed that the average student's GPA would rise by about a quarter-point with the new policy.

Megan McLaughlin, co-founder of Fairgrade, a parent group formed last winter to lobby for the change, said that although most parents have a realistic view, the increase could still help.

A day after their decision, School Board members were considering how to implement the policy while maintaining the district's high academic standards.

Thursday's vote did make some things clear: There will be a new grading system in place by September, and it will be based on a 10-point scale, which means that 90 to 100 percent will result in an A. The scale also will include pluses and minuses.

What remains undecided is whether A-minus would start at 92 or 93, for example, and whether the score required to pass a class will change. This question is likely to inspire more debate. Many board members are uncomfortable with lowering the bar for a passing score.

The School Board asked Superintendent Jack D. Dale to study variations on a 10-point scale and report back by the end of March.

Many students will see an immediate change: an extra GPA point for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes. Currently, the increase is a half-point. Their recalculated GPAs will be included in transcripts that schools send to colleges every February.

The board also approved a half-point boost for honors classes, but that change will not take effect immediately. School officials plan to review courses offered throughout the county to uniformly define honors classes.

Fairgrade is pressing the School Board to make the extra credit for honors classes retroactive so that students working hard in tougher classes now can see some payoff in their GPAs when they are applying for college. The new policy affects only current Fairfax students, so those now in college and applying to graduate school are not affected.

Many students would like the changes to be made as soon as possible. Throughout the day at Madison High, the grading scale was the "number one" topic of conversation, Sydney said.

"Kids were very excited," she said, and some were hoping the new scale would be in place before the next round of midterm exams. "We can dream," she said.

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