The Anne Arundel school board is mulling a change to the grading system that could benefit students polishing their transcripts for college applications. And, as board members are learning, no such change passes without debate among students vying for a top class rank.
The proposed change, part of an overhaul of the school system's grading policy, was discussed at last week's school board meeting. The plan would allow high school students to drop a low grade from their transcript if they repeat the class and earn a better mark the second time. From the perspective of college admissions officers, it would be as if the lower grade never existed.
Administrators thought the new rule would encourage students to take another crack at material they didn't master the first time. They also were seeking to bring Anne Arundel in line with other competitive school systems. Montgomery County public schools, the largest system in Maryland, allows students to drop a bad grade if they retake a course and do better. Other area systems, including Fairfax County's in Virginia, do not.
"The proposed revision is really an attempt to encourage students to retake a course that they've exited with a bad grade and, more importantly, that they've exited not really feeling that they've gotten the information they needed," said Marti Pogonowski, manager of instructional leadership and school improvement for the 75,000-student Anne Arundel system.
Any change to the grading system is monitored closely by competitive high school students, who sometimes seem to know more than their guidance counselors about the nuances of grade-point calculations. While the system is based on the traditional 4.0 scale, savvy students know that they can push their grade-point average (GPA) into the stratosphere by loading up on college-level Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, each of which brings a one-point bonus, so that an A counts as 5 points. Honors classes, considered a bit less challenging than AP or IB, bring a half-point bonus.
Students are divided on the latest grading proposal. Some say that forgiving a bad grade would send the wrong message to teens, who may find adult life less accommodating.
"I think students should learn that sometimes in life there are no second chances," said Meghan Haenn, who is the incoming senior class president at Broadneck High School in Annapolis. "I think it's almost an excuse for laziness and procrastination in class."
Pallas Snider, a senior at Severna Park High School and the newest student member of the school board, objected to the forgiveness rule when the policy was presented at a board meeting earlier this month. Snider pointed out that the rule theoretically could result in a valedictorian who had failed a class. Administrators countered that they would be on the lookout for such cases, but said they considered them unlikely.
Pogonowski said the rule change is designed more for the benefit of the struggling student, someone for whom a C in geometry might be a real accomplishment. The goal, she said, is to give such students a chance to make good on an academic meltdown, to avoid sending them off into their adult lives haunted by the knowledge that they have failed.
"It's not so much about the grade to us as it is about students feeling prepared and confident," she said.
Current policy dictates that a bad grade remain on the transcript; if a student retakes the course, the first and second grade are averaged together.
Nicole Trombetti, incoming senior class president at Severna Park High, said that strong students shouldn't feel threatened by the proposed forgiveness policy.
"I can see how it would be effective for students who don't do well in a course," she said. "It might not be effective for students who don't try at all."
To Trombetti, the notion of retaking a course is penance enough for a student who's digging out from a bad grade. Students who get a good grade the first time around, she said, "should be proud of themselves, because they don't have to spend another year on the same subject."
Haenn, at Broadneck High, said the proposed grading policy change is another sign that students and administrators have become overly concerned with "how we look on an index or a list." If students can make their bad grades go away, she reasoned, both they and their school look better to the public and to the college admissions community: "If they can say that X amount of students have a 3.5 GPA or better, that probably looks better for them."
Haenn concedes that she herself has fallen prey to GPA obsession. She loaded up on AP classes last year to boost her average and found, at year's end, that the A's she was earning in her non-AP classes were dragging her down. So she plans to give up her post as the managing editor of the school newspaper, an elective class that carries no bonus points.
"It's just bringing down my GPA if I take that class," she said.
The school board is expected to vote on the new grading policy at its next meeting, on Aug. 3.