Jay Mathews: What should Fairfax do about Jefferson grades?

Officials could give Jefferson a different system from the rest of the district and influence the way AP is dealt with everywhere else.
Officials could give Jefferson a different system from the rest of the district and influence the way AP is dealt with everywhere else. (Getty Images)
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By Jay Mathews
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has the highest SAT scores in the country and probably is the best high school in many other ways. But is it too good for the rules that govern the other high schools in Fairfax County?

Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale will decide by January, officials say, on a controversy about honors and college-level courses that could give Jefferson a different grading system from the rest of the district and influence the way Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses are dealt with everywhere else.

The argument began with the frustrated dreams of Jefferson teachers who want to create courses that are even more challenging than AP and IB (for which students can receive college credit if they score well on independently written and scored exams). Fifteen years ago, Jefferson AP government teacher Jay Lamb devised a special version of AP government with the help of English teacher Pat Curtis and geosystems teacher Russ Fazio. Jefferson students are admitted largely on the strength of grades, test scores and other middle school successes. They loved the challenge of weaving the three subjects into an environmental theme, even if much of it did not relate to the AP exam.

Yet the teachers discovered that such experiments were unlikely to go much further. Seventy percent of the students said in a survey that if they had not gotten extra grade-point credit for its being an AP course, they would not have enrolled.

At Jefferson, as at nearly every other high-performing high school, AP or its European immigrant cousin, IB, rules. Although selective college admissions officials don't say so out loud, they require that students take AP or IB or have a good reason why they don't. Interdisciplinary courses are fairly common in lower grades but hard to sell to juniors and seniors who can take AP. AP demands that teachers cover the material on AP exams that they do not write. If they abandon the AP label, not enough students will sign up for their courses because they won't get the extra grade points.

Fairfax County changed its grading systems lately after parents complained that its definition of an A -- 94 to 100 percent -- meant lower grade-point averages than in districts with the standard 90 to 100 percent A. That change created an opening for Jefferson teachers who want to put their homemade courses on the same level as AP by altering the bonus point system.

Peter Noonan, Fairfax County's assistant superintendent for instructional services, described two possible options that rip Jefferson out of the county grading system. At the moment, all Fairfax County schools give an extra grade point to a student who completes an AP or IB class. If the final grade is a B, or 3.0 in the standard system, the student gets a 4.0. Honors courses in the core subjects of math, social studies and science get an extra half grade point.

Under one suggested option for Jefferson, no course grades would be weighted. Jefferson, and only Jefferson, would return to the long-forgotten system of my generation, when a C was a 2.0 and grade-point bonuses were unimaginable. This would be a shock to Jefferson students and parents but probably do little harm because Jefferson students already wear halos in the eyes of college admissions officers. This option would help teachers who want to lure students away from AP and to their homemade courses because AP would no longer have the extra grade point.

The other possible option anticipates the objections of Jefferson people worried about college admissions. The school would no longer give grade bonuses for courses but would raise every student's grade-point average by half a point. One Fairfax County official, asked whether this would give Jefferson students an unfair advantage over other county schools, said a South Lakes High student last year got the county's top GPA, 4.58, higher than the maximum 4.5 Jefferson students could get.

These are, to say the least, breathtaking changes in the way Jefferson operates. That means many people won't like them. The no-weighting option will be scary for students and parents who don't understand the strength of the school's national reputation. Some Jefferson parents are complaining that even the half-point bonus plan is bad because it would not reward Jefferson students who take the hardest courses.

No one involved is sure what will happen. Other options might emerge. There are high schools throughout the country with teachers looking for ways to compete with AP or IB for student attention. If Jefferson, the great science school, succeeds in its experiment with a downsized grade-point system, other places are likely to try it, bringing even more notice to the best high school in America.

Read more from Jay Mathews at www.washingtonpost.com/education. He'll continue to answer readers' questions on his Class Struggle blog at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle. E-mail him at extracredit@washpost.com.

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