Fairfax school experiments with letting cheating students retake tests

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 10:34 PM

The Fairfax County high school that asked teachers to all but banish F's from its recent report cards has been experimenting with an approach that would allow students caught cheating to retake tests instead of receiving zeros.

West Potomac High School Principal Cliff Hardison last month instructed teachers to allow cheaters to retake tests. The idea was that cheating should "result in a disciplinary consequence separate from an academic consequence," Hardison said in a Nov. 5 e-mail to teachers.

Later, after complaints from parents and teachers, he reverted to the old policy of using zeros but also gave teachers the option of offering retakes, according to the Nov. 5 e-mail. It said that individual departments would be discussing the issue as the school makes broader changes this year to its grading system.

It was not clear how many teachers intended to give the option to retake tests to students who had cheated. Teachers said some departments were actively studying the issue, and others were holding off for now. At least one teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, offered a retest to a student who was caught cheating last month.

The shifting policies at West Potomac, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, have roiled parents and teachers. A group called Real World, Real Grades set up a Facebook page this week.

"We think it's morally corrupt to not have natural consequences to cheating," said parent Kate Van Dyck, one of the group's leaders. "It does not support the social values that we are trying to impart to our children, nor does it reflect the values of our community."

The changes come as educators in the Washington area and across the country are trying to improve grading policies to emphasize content mastery and keep struggling students from giving up. First-quarter report cards for many West Potomac students included the mark "I" for incomplete instead of a failing "F," leaving time for students to get extra help, turn in missing assignments and learn material they had not absorbed.

Hardison declined to comment on the state of the cheating policy this week but noted in an e-mail late Wednesday that the the school's instructional leaders would work toward a "whole-school approach."

On Tuesday, he sent an automated e-mail to families in which he sought to recast elements of the new grading policy.

He had previously told The Washington Post that "incomplete" marks in some cases could be left in place until summer. In Tuesday's e-mail, Hardison said that marks of incomplete could not be carried over more than one quarter and that all would be replaced by a traditional grade by each semester's end.

That shift brought Hardison's grading policy in line with the school district's, which allows incompletes as long as a final grade is applied by the end of each semester, said Peter Noonan, the county's assistant superintendent for instructional services.

Fairfax schools' policy on cheating says that consequences can include a student-parent-school conference, a lower grade or an F, an alternative assignment or recompletion of the work. "Cheating and plagiarizing are absolutely unacceptable for us," Noonan said.

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