The Fairfax County schools administration is considering sweeping changes to the grading system for middle school and high school classes that could help struggling students keep their grades up.
In a message sent to thousands of teachers Tuesday, Deputy Superintendent Steven Lockard detailed a series of proposals under consideration to revamp how teachers hand out grades to students and to standardize exam scores across the county.
The changes could have widespread impact in the school system, affecting students’ chances of getting into college and how teachers handle homework and tests. Under current rules, high schools in Fairfax have the flexibility to decide grading scales and methods. For example, an F could equal a zero at some schools but could be scored as 50 percent at others.
“It is time to examine our current grading policies in an effort to ensure that we have consistent and equitable practices throughout our middle and high schools,” Lockard wrote.
The majority of the changes Lockard outlined in his message to teachers would aim to create consistency in how students are graded and give those struggling in classes more opportunities to improve their scores. Under the new system, student grades could be calculated partly on classroom effort as well as test scores.
Experts say the proposals are similar to changes instituted in school districts across the country.
Education consultant and grading expert Ken O’Connor said movements to standardize grading systems are picking up steam. He also said that giving students a zero is “morally and ethically wrong.”
“As soon as a kid gets even one zero, they have no chance of success,” O’Connor said, noting that the student has to then achieve perfect results to recover academically.
Carol Commodore, a Wisconsin-based grading expert, said grades should accurately reflect a student’s knowledge but that in many places they do not.
“Many of our grading practices are not consistent school to school and classroom to classroom,” Commodore said. “Grades have to be accurate because they have to represent the work of the child. . . . A student’s well-being is at stake.”
In Montgomery County, students cannot be given a score lower than 50 percent “unless they did not actually do the assignment or put in effort to do it,” said schools spokesman Dana Tofig. In Loudoun County, the grading practices regarding zeros varies school to school, said spokesman Wayde Byard.
Harris LaTeef, the student representative to the Fairfax County School Board and a Langley High School senior, said that the changes could be beneficial to students.
“Overall, I think it makes sense for a system like [Fairfax County Public Schools] to have a uniform grading policy,” LaTeef said. “Students should be rewarded equally for the work they do regardless of whether they attend Oakton or South County or Langley or any other school in the county.”
School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), who has two sons at Woodson High School, said the grading changes would potentially improve students’ chances when they apply to college.
McLaughlin said that because grading policies now vary school to school, Fairfax students aren’t being fairly judged by admissions officers. (McLaughlin served as an admissions officer at Georgetown University for six years.)
For example, McLaughlin said, some schools allow students to retake tests to improve their grades, while other schools do not.
“What happens when you apply for college and kids from other schools have higher grades?” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin founded the parent advocacy group Fairgrade and ran for a seat on the School Board after successfully lobbying Fairfax administrators to change the district’s strict grading for honors and college-level classes.
She said one proposal under consideration would allow students across the county to receive credit for submitting corrected answers to questions they got wrong on tests. McLaughlin said she also supports the proposal to replace zeros with a 50 percent for F grades.
“Digging out from a zero is a whole lot harder for kids than a 50,” McLaughlin said.
Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said the grading changes likely will spur a passionate response from educators. The key for the school system, he said, is getting teacher input.
The administration took the first step, Greenburg said, when Lockard sent a draft of his message about the changes to teacher group representatives. Greenburg said he sent back remarks to Lockard about the tone and language in the note that he later saw reflected in the message that landed in teachers’ inboxes Tuesday afternoon.
Greenburg said the changes would make the grading system more transparent and help students reduce what some parents and teens call an unreasonable amount of nightly homework. In addition, they would create equity in grading, Greenburg said.
“In my opinion, this is about getting consistency across the county,” Greenburg said. “The inconsistency in this county is so overwhelming between high schools and expectations and what things are worth that I think it’s causing a lot of problems among parents and students.”
Lockard wrote that there is no specific timeline for changing the grading system but noted that new rules could take affect as early as the 2015-2016 school year. He also noted that the administration plans to seek comments from teachers and focus groups across the county before committing to anything.
“It is critically important that teacher perspective and input are heard and valued as we plan this change,” Lockard wrote.