West Potomac High reverses grading policies

West Potomac High School Principal Cliff Hardison called publicity surrounding grading practices a distraction.
West Potomac High School Principal Cliff Hardison called publicity surrounding grading practices a distraction. (File photo: Larry Morris/The Washington Post)
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 11:52 PM

The Fairfax County high school that largely banished F's from recent report cards and was experimenting with a no-zeros policy for students caught cheating reversed course on both policies Friday, according to an e-mail its principal sent to families and educators.

West Potomac High School Principal Cliff Hardison wrote that after nearly a week of publicity, "it has become clear to me that we do not have consensus within the faculty, the student body, or the parents at West Potomac to change our grading policies from prior years."

Reverting to old grading practices, West Potomac will no longer routinely use marks of "incomplete" when students have failed or missed essential work. It will no longer give retests, rather than zeros, to students found cheating or plagiarizing.

Still, Hardison did not give up his vision of "mastery" learning - which had driven the new policy approaches - with its emphasis on content and moving away from traditional grading methods that can be punitive or false measures of what students know.

Hardison said three advisory panels would be created to gather research and involve teachers, students, parents and community members in policy changes. He invited those interested to join.

Parents and teachers had complained in recent weeks about the new policies, implemented this school year, that largely replaced F's on first-quarter report cards and gave teachers the option of allowing students to retake tests when they were caught cheating. Friday's reversal surprised many of those who had raised objections.

"People were shocked, elated - hopeful that finally their concerns were being addressed," said Kate Van Dyck, a leader of Real World, Real Grades, which formed in opposition to the policies. "We're pleased that there've been some changes made, but we will continue to monitor this very closely in the future and expect to see opportunities for real community input prior to the implementation of policies."

Hardison declined interview requests Friday and referred inquiries to a Fairfax schools spokesman, Paul Regnier, who declined to detail what inspired the shift in policy. "I have to let it speak for itself," he said.

As news spread about the turnaround, it became the talk of the school and beyond.

"My students and I and the faculty with whom I talked are happy," said Bill Dobson, a math teacher who had opposed the changes to the cheating and F policies.

Mary Mathewson, an English teacher, described herself as "over-the-moon." Everyone wants what's best for students, she said, but in her mind it "has to be a two-way street. It can't be us chasing after them all the way to summer school."

In his e-mail, Hardison said students who are failing will see an F at the end of every marking period, as the school, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, plans for "a smoother transition" to new learning and grading approaches.

Hardison said that he has never tolerated cheating and that West Potomac "will completely return" to its prior discipline policy, which allowed zeros on tests.

The grading policy changes were first reported in The Washington Post.

The night before the e-mail, Hardison met with six members of Van Dyck's organization and a handful of other parents and members of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association. There, he apologized for not involving the broader school community as he changed grading policies so dramatically, according to people in attendance.

Parent Jan Speakman said she considered it "a shame" that the F policy had to be fully retracted, when it probably only needed to be modified. But, she said, "the way he's looking forward to go, with all of these committees, is positive."

Across the county, others wondered whether West Potomac's struggles were a sign of things to come, said Catherine Lorenze of the Fairfax advocacy group FairGrade. With such intense debate about West Potomac, parents expected more communication from county schools officials, she said.

"What bothered us was process," she said. "It was just this big trial balloon that exploded on them."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company