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Fair Grading In Fairfax: What Does An "A" Really Mean?

Why are some parents in Fairfax and Loudoun counties up in arms about whether an A in a high school course means the student averaged a 90 or a 94?

The controversy coming to the Fairfax school board this month is about one thing: Anxiety over college admission. That emotionally fraught issue has blurred the vision of many parents, who have come to believe that if only their kids' schools would artificially pump up their little sweeties' grades, perhaps their just-slightly-less-than-perfect children might get into colleges that otherwise would give them the big diss.

The Fairfax system uses a six-point grade average structure in which you need a 94 to get an A. Loudoun's scoring grid is very similar. But in many parts of the country, an A represents a numerical grade of 90 or more.

The parent groups in the two Virginia counties contend that college admissions officers cannot comprehend these distinctions and therefore put applicants from these two strong school systems at a competitive disadvantage.

To buy into the parents' FairGrade movement, you have to accept two arguments that just don't hold water:

1) You'd have to believe that admissions officers at small, generally private, colleges that examine each candidate's qualifications individually are intentionally turning a blind eye to differences among school districts. Admissions officers at these colleges usually know each high school so well that they regularly take into account the grading idiosyncrasies of individual quirky teachers. These are admissions offices that compare students within a given school's class, knowing that it makes no sense to compare a kid from Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax with one from, say, Cardozo in the District. The school's offerings, faculty, resources, student population, and yes, grading system are taken very much into account.

I've sat in on admissions committee sessions at four major universities and in every case, admissions officers discussing the candidacies of students from very different high schools spoke knowledgeably and sympathetically about those schools' strengths, weaknesses and oddities--right down to the level of the history teacher who simply doesn't give As or the French teacher who blithely hands out high grades.

2) And you'd have to believe that large, state schools that cannot afford a big enough admissions staff are incapable of distinguishing between an A from Fairfax and an A from a system with a more lenient grading structure. It's true that bigger colleges cannot give their many thousands of candidates the kind of personal attention that they get at small schools. But even large universities very much calculate into their admissions decisions the differences among high schools--and especially among school systems.

Don't just take college admissions officers' word for this: Look at the composition of the classes that are admitted. The simple fact is that a kid from Fairfax is held to a higher standard than a kid from a rural county in southern Virginia; otherwise, Virginia colleges could easily fill their ranks with high-achieving students from northern Virginia. So admissions decisions very much take into account the weaker offerings and different grading systems in a small rural county when compared to a big, well-to-do system such as Fairfax's.

The other main argument advanced by parent activists is the notion that there's a disconnect between the Fairfax grading system and the students' performance on standardized tests. Parents say it's not fair that students who get high SAT scores are not being rewarded with grade-point averages that reflect their performance. The county system's report on this concludes that among Fairfax students who scored between 1200 and 1249 on the math and verbal sections of the SAT, only 5 percent had a GPA of 4.0 or higher.

Parent activists see this as somehow outrageous, but it seems perfectly reasonable--those are decent but not impressive SAT scores. Nationwide, a 1200 on the math and verbal would put a senior in the 80th percentile. If the standardized tests have any validity, you wouldn't expect a student in the 80th percentile to have a 4.0 or anything close to it.

Parents note that in other systems, that level of SAT score does indeed equate with straight A's--the county report says 27 percent of non-Fairfax students who hit those SAT scores got class grades above the straight-A mark.

But all that tells us is that other school systems engage in wholesale grade inflation that does both the students and the larger community a grave disservice. For Fairfax to decide to join those other systems in a grievously distorting policy that tricks parents into believing their kids are far better prepared than they really are would be utter folly. Superintendent Jack Dale is right to stick with his grading system; the real question now is whether school board members will have the courage to do the same.

By Marc Fisher |  January 5, 2009; 9:31 AM ET
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Parents have been trying to sell this arguement about FCPS's grading policy for
over 35 years. FCPS are not that great but the they along with real estate lobby have sold everyone on how this is a top school system.

My niece allegedyly has reading problems according to her incompetent teachers in the 4th grade at her FCPS school. Now she loves to read and has read all the Herry Potter books and all the instruction manuals for her Wii games but she has a problem when it comes to explaing the nuances of what she reads in class. Why did the author make the main character's shoes red? Who cares in the 4th grade! Can she summarize what she read and give you the main ideas. Then shut up. Oh her mom and dad were told to get her a tutor like everyone else. Damn Korean kids! Teachers in FCPS are just as lazy as they were 30 some years ago and want the parents to do all the work so they get the credit. Cut the FCPS budget by 15% this year and another 15% next year and I bet education doesnt suffer.

Posted by: sheepherder | January 5, 2009 9:50 AM

If they truly cared for the academic performance of their spawn, they'd move to the peoper counties so their kid could shine. Move tp Page, or Augusta or Highland. Their spawn would shine like a diamond in a goats butt and, by dint of being in a lesser county, be guaranteed a top spot in some fine school.

Posted by: ronjaboy | January 5, 2009 9:54 AM

I used to think it was no big deal....until I started visiting colleges with my duaghter. She has a 3.5 GPA, which is nothing to sneeze at. However, to get into honors programs and be eligible for more merit scholarships, she needs a GPA of at least 3.6 or 3.7....which she would have if FCPS used a 10-point grading scale. To me, this means students from other school systems that use a 10-point scale will qualify for the honors programs and, more importantly, the scholarship money, and my daughter won't. FCPS already sets the bar higher than many other school systems in the country through the curriculum it teaches, so our kids have a tougher course AND a tougher grading scale. Will the 10-point scale make a huge difference? Probably not, but it would level the playing field a litte.

Posted by: lolee6241 | January 5, 2009 10:37 AM

Granted it was 17 years ago, but even then the folks making the engineering admissions decision at Virginia Tech knew specifics about my school in small town Tennessee. I was specifically told they like to have kids from there. Based on that, I don't even think the #2 argument is valid (i.e. I agree with Marc). A very large, state school knowing about a out-of-state public school in a town of 30k? That says to me they do pay attention and know details about school.

Now granted, the conversation I had involved them saying the kids coming out of my school were generally almost as good as those coming from TJ (and we were just your typical, city-wide public school). So maybe that is why the school was known. But still. Oh, and we used the >93=B scale. I was shocked to go to college and find out that a 91 was still an A in many parts of the world.

Posted by: rubytuesday | January 5, 2009 12:56 PM

The thing that always bothered me about this was the fact that the students in question are going to get into a good school somewhere. These studends are not being rejected across the board, which you would believe given the way parents seem to react to this.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | January 5, 2009 1:14 PM

The parents complaints ignore another important factor: every teacher employs some variant of "the curve." If after grading a slew of assignments a teacher saw that there was not a single A in a class of 30, something tells me he would go back and add a couple of points to everyone's grade.

Posted by: Cossackathon | January 5, 2009 2:51 PM

I fail to see any advantage to Fairfax to have what I would consider to be a completely arbitrary and non-standard grading scale.

A good friend of mine attended a school with a grading scale that went to 4.5. She graduated with a 4.0 average because even though she got some B+s she made up for them with a 9th grade of straight A+s that buoyed her average. I remember I thought she really deserved a 3.5.

I truly doubt that all admissions people really understand these differences and most of all, I don't understand how these non-standard grading schemes HELP anyone.

Posted by: bbcrock | January 5, 2009 3:43 PM

I don't think there is really a problem as far as admissions go. Admissions staff have always looked at the particulars of the school.

The bigger deal is scholarship money. The non-standard scale clearly puts students at a disadvantage there.

Posted by: jerryravens | January 5, 2009 4:09 PM

Hmmm, I'm a bit confused. Are both systems, the 10-point scale and otherwise, using the 5.0 point GPA scale? I went to school in a district in VA that gave weight to higher level classes (ex. AP was a 5.0 scale) so that allowed for a > than 4.0 grade average (as a result, it was impossible to be valedictorian or salutatorian without taking AP courses). In addition, the 10 point scale was not used: a 94 and above was an A. Therefore, it was still fairly difficult to get a high GPA bcz of those two systems coupled, even so, colleges had a a system for calculating your GPA on a 4.0 scale to make your average comparable to other students. Is this method no longer in use?

Posted by: tootincommon | January 5, 2009 5:55 PM

Damn Korean kids!

Posted by: sheepherder | January 5, 2009 9:50 AM


What an amazingly bigoted comment. The reason that Asian kids score better on average than non-Asians is that most come from families with a very high school work ethic. For many of these families, they are first or second generation Americans and their parents or grandparents only made it out of poor conditions in their home country by working hard, getting good enough grades to earn their way into American schools. Only a limited number of the top 5-10% of school students had any chance of getting scholarships and college acceptances. Don't blame the Asian kids if they outscore the non-Asian kids in school. Just teach the non-Asian kids to have the same work ethic and maybe there would be fewer complaints about the 6-point vs the 10-point grading curve.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | January 5, 2009 6:02 PM

This post, and most of the comments, are laughable. What is the advantage to using the Fairfax system? Why not make it easier for colleges to compare students on an even scale? The prejudicial language like 'spawn' and 'little sweeties' really makes me wonder if your motivation is the grading system or some kind of repressed anger.

Posted by: freddiefreeloader | January 5, 2009 6:17 PM

everyone is missing the point of Fairgrade. Grading systems are standards. Almost all school systmes have standardized on A - 90+, B = 80+ etc. Parents only want FCPS to use the national grading standard. And give extra credit for honors courses, And make the grading retroactive for students in grades 9-11. None of this is a big deal - just a simple software fix. Based on the Post's last article, this is an 8000 - 1 choice. In light of all the difficult choices the Board must make to balance the budget, just give the parents what they want. It's democracy in action.

Posted by: mbc7 | January 5, 2009 7:21 PM

freddiefreeloader is correct -- there is no advantage to the use of FCPS's grading system -- but there are disadvantages. You cannot count on every admissions counselor being familiar with the system, especially if they're at some some small liberal arts college in another part of the country. And Fisher's comments are rather ironic in light of his being a graduate of Princeton, one of the great bastions of grade inflation.

Posted by: ViennaDad | January 5, 2009 9:05 PM

There will be losers if the FairGrade parents win--The children who had a high GPA before the grade inflation and now miss out on scholarships and have to go to a lesser college because someone with a 91 looks just as smart on paper as the student with the 96. What good is a grading scale if it provides no comparative information. For this reason I recommend we report the percentages without converting it into a letter grade and then converting it again into a numerical GPA score. Information gets lost out in the process. Let parents, colleges, and scholarship foundations decide how to weight the percentages to make award decisions. At least with percentages you can more accurately rank students which is impossible when all the grades are "A". Schools can still give academic awards to the top 25% of the class without ever calculating a GPA.

Posted by: EdwardMyers | January 5, 2009 11:31 PM

The author dismisses the parents concerns in a very flip manner. He'd be surprised at the level of involvement and the true heavy lifting required upon them in the FCPS. The teachers punt a lot of their work to the parents on a daily/nightly basis. These are not Moms + Dads sitting back with a cocktail and bemoaning the fate of their "little sweeties".

Posted by: TheDubb | January 6, 2009 6:29 AM

Hey Marc

Where do (or did) your kids go to school? FCPS or Montgomery? Or maybe private? I want to know what scale is (was) used. Are your kids (or were your kids) graded using a 10 point scale or a 6 point scale? It would be very enlightening if you could share this.

Posted by: mystified | January 6, 2009 7:06 AM

yeah scholarships and honors programs with strict nonweighted gpa cutoffs are where certain students would lose out.

plus, in some large schools, say admission counselors, there may truly not have the resources to sift through different systems.

Posted by: jasphen | January 6, 2009 7:35 AM

My first thought is whether the author of this very biased column has an ulterior motive? Perhaps Mr. Fisher is the parent of a Montgomery County student who is competing for scholarships against Fairfax County students?

Although I do not doubt the author's experience in college admissions, I do find it hard to believe that admissions officers in all 3,500+ colleges nationwide are familiar with the Fairfax County grading scale. Seriously?

The issue is not just admissions. As many have more eloquently expressed - the issues are many. Scholarships, safe driver insurance discounts, internships, and honors programs are all on the line in addition to college admissions.

Fairfax County parents only ask to level the playing field. If all other school systems would agree to move to the 6 point grading scale, we would be satisfied. Since that is not likely, we will continue to push to influence that which we can. We would like to see a 10 point grading scale in Fairfax County to judge our students in line with most other students nationwide.

I would like to see the Washington Post put a reporter on this topic to provide a more comprehensive and even-handed analysis. Mr. Fisher obviously has an ax to grind.

Posted by: Wilson6 | January 6, 2009 7:58 AM

The point is not about grade inflation or deflation. It's about a standard that exists in nearly all school systems, including most top performing, academically driven schools. If Fairfax County students are disadvantaged in state or national competition as a result of this grading policy, then the grading policy is a poor one.

I guess what you're really saying is that Montgomery County and all the other school systems that follow the 10-point grading scale should all change to the scale imposed by Fairfax County. It would be TERRIFIC if they did, but since they won't, why should we allow Fairfax County students to be penalized in comparison? You CAN NOT assure that all students' records are appropriately adjusted, as you claim. This grading policy is inviting errors that will work against Fairfax County students, and it offers no true benefits.

You can sit on your academic high horse and argue against "inflation" but we have to deal with reality. Whatever you want to call it, the common 10 point grading scale standard is the standard. Defying it is hurting our students in various ways.

Posted by: mkp24 | January 6, 2009 8:01 AM

I agree with the comment that the Post should put a different person, not Marc Fisher, on this topic as he obviously has an ax to grind.

I have three high schoolers in Fairfax County and have been through the battles - I know.

The fact is that over half of all major colleges do not take into account the difficulty of the grading scale - they go strictly by the GPA. This is true of the private school that my children want to attend. It's the GPA, followed by the test scores! I asked admissions if they look at the grading scales or policies of individualized school districts, and they DO NOT.

Did you hear that, Mr. Fisher? You are dead wrong.

No one is asking for any special favors for their children; they are asking for a level playing field.

And you had better believe this is about getting into good colleges. Whose going to apologize for that? Are you denying that the whole system has been developed and set up for that purpose?

We have a major public university here in Virginia that will not even look at students who have less than a 3.5 GPA. If they have a 3.4 in Fairfax County, and that same effort would give them a 3.8 in Montgomery County and gets them into the school, that is patently unfair and wrong and needs to be changed.

And it doesn't make the schools better to have a 6-point scale. The majority of the top 100 high schools in the US have a 10-point scale!

Be grateful that Mr. Fisher is not on the school board.

Posted by: votewithyourfeet | January 6, 2009 8:50 AM

Mr. Fisher - I find your article to be quite offensive. Why is it that when parents from a relatively affluent jurisdiction like Fairfax County express concerns about their children's welfare you use terms like "little sweeties" and "fraught with anxiety" or suggest we are "up in arms" that are students are "less than perfect"? This is profoundly insulting to your readers in Fairfax.

How about addressing this important issue in a more respectful (and accurate)fashion -- Fairfax parents simply have a legitimate, well-researched and fully rational concern that their children are being put at a significant competitive disadvantage by the school system that is supposed to serve them? Are we wrong to express that concern? Would it make you feel better if we were poor and had the concern? Would that make it ok?

You state that other systems in the country are "inflating" their grading scales -- if Fairfax does not use the same scale then logically this must put our students at a disadvantage, no? If there is no difference in using our scale vs. the 10 pt scale of other districts then why do you express concern that the 10 point scale used by most other systems is "grievously distorting" and "a grave disservice" to those students -- you are saying at once that the grading scales used by various school systems really don't matter and then in the next breath you're saying that they do. Which is it?

Please re-read the county's recent report on this matter. There are several findings that are directly mis-reported in your article. Contrary to what you state, the report found that many school admissions committees DO NOT adjust GPAs to take into account Fairfax's more rigorous grading scale and are often completely unaware of it. This is especially true of colleges that are outside Virginia and the mid-Atlantic states. That is precisely why Fairgrade's arguments do in fact, "hold water" - alot of water.

Finally, last time I checked, an SAT score of 1200 - 1249 on the math and verbal sections is considered "impressive" by most people. As you note this score puts a student at or above the 80th percentile -- I guess you don't consider a student who knows more than 80% of their peers to be impressive? So by that logic, if the Washington Post's columnists were judged to be among the top 20% of their peers nationally in terms of journalistic quality -- that would not impress you?

In general, students in the top 20% on the SATs should be expected to have GPAs in the top 20%. That is all Fairgrade is saying and their data backs up their point that the Fairfax students' GPAs are artificially depressed due to the grading scale. No one is saying the GPAs should be "near perfect". Please don't misrepresent the facts.

Posted by: alfonsejr | January 6, 2009 9:23 AM

Wait'll they get to the real world and see what a variety of grading scales are used then!

Posted by: ronjaboy | January 6, 2009 9:36 AM

This is a big can o'worms question, but here it goes: Why not use the actual number grades? That's what my school district did growing up on Long Island as did all the neighboring school districts. Then it's evident who has a 90 and who received a 96. There are easy ways to also give extra credit for AP, Accelerated, and Honors classes to acknowledge that a 75 in AP Bio might be worth more than a 75 in regular Biology.

Posted by: RecoveringLawyer | January 6, 2009 10:25 AM

15,000 school districts in the US (even more High Schools) and you say, "admission officers at these colleges usually know each highs school so well..." Wow amazing admissions officers!

Posted by: ElizabethH5 | January 6, 2009 10:29 AM

I wonder how many of these parents will be raising the same fuss when it's time for the students to apply to graduate schools? It's a fact of life -- schools on every level have grading systems with problems and some are known to inflate grades tremendously while others do not.

Posted by: RecoveringLawyer | January 6, 2009 10:37 AM

Faux Fisher, you are wrong on this one. FCPS students are at a disadvantage with the current grading scale. Other posts have "hit the nail on the head." (alfonsejr,votewithyourfeet and mkp24).

Posted by: nosurprise2me | January 6, 2009 10:37 AM

As a former Georgetown Admissions Office and DUKE Admissions Reader, I can factually attest that MARC FISHER and FCPS Supt Dale are both WRONG. FCPS' own research report demonstrated that 55% of all colleges surveyed by FCPS do NOT recalculate GPAs to account for different grading scales and 89% of these colleges compare an individual applicant against the ENTIRE applicant pool. This means that FCPS student compete for college admissions with lower grades and GPAs, despite achieving the same numeric grades.

More importantly, Marc Fisher, a Washington metropolitan columnist, seems perfectly content to have VA students held captive to this antiquated grading scale, but doesn't publicly criticize the other area jurisdictions of Montgomery, Arlington, Falls Church, and Howard Counties as "having grade inflation and lower grading standards". The reason is because ALL of those schools, along with the majority of 50 nationally ranked high schools, do have high standards and they use the 10 Point Scale.

Shame on Marc Fisher for abusing his professional responsibilities. He should have read the FACTs of the FCPS report and not injected baseless personal opinion. A journalist/columnist needs to report issues in an informed, objective and accurate manner.

Here are a just a few important research facts imbedded in the FCPS report which demonstrate WHY the FCPS School Board should vote for the 10 Point Scale
1. High School Letter Grades, not GPA, are the most important factor in college admissions (National Association of College Admissions Counselors 2007, COLLEGE BOARD 2003, FCPS 2008 College Survey)
2. 55% of colleges surveyed by FCPS responded that they do NOT recalculate the GPA, so FCPS students are forced to compete with LOWER GRADES and LOWER GPAs for college admissions.
3. 89% of colleges surveyed by FCPS responded that each individual applicant is compared against the ENTIRE applicant pool, and not simply their high school.
4. 75 school districts in 12 different states examined this very issue and determined that ADOPTING the 10 Point Scale would BETTER serve their students and would remove any competitive disadvantage for their students' applying to college. [Many Superintendents have spoken publicly of the need to remove this disadvantage, including Albemarle County, VA]

5. FCPS’ unweighted A- GPAs are "depressed", with 100-200% FEWER 2008 FCPS students earning this GPA than comparable non-FCPS students.

Hopefully the FCPS School Board will vote based on the research evidence and adopt the standard 10 Point Grading Scale.

Megan McLaughlin
Fairgrade President

Posted by: macfiveva | January 6, 2009 10:56 AM

Simply stated, Fisher is not correct in his support of the current high school grading systems.

I have been watching the issue of grading from the sidelines with ever increasing frustration about the irrationality of the current system and its adherents. The problem is that the math (I was educated as a mathematician) does not support the system; i.e., that students are graded on a 100 point system which is then converted into a 4 point alphabetic scale at some arbitrary cutoff points; and then converted back to a numeric scale to produce a grade pt average. This process introduces large distortions into the grading system. The obvious solution, and one that existed for years until the misguided introduction of the 4 pt scale, is to simply report the actual raw 100-point system grades.

Any important system should work at the extremes as well as in the middle, but the current grading system does not. For example, if you received a 94 in each of your courses, you would have gotten A’s in each course and have a grade pt average of 4.0 . OTOH, if I received only a 93 in each course, I would have gotten B’s across the board and have grade pt avg of only 3.0! What a gross distortion of student performance this represents. Had the actual 100 pt scale grades been reported on our high school transcripts, the one pt difference in our actual averages would be viewed by colleges and employers as insignificant, as it should be.

At the other extreme if you were getting high A’s, e.g, 98's in each course and I was getting low B’s (e.g., 85's in Fairfax Cnty), the actual numeric scores would show that your performance was very significantly better than mine.

One of my rants is that the jerks who dreamed up this distorted 4 pt system that can have huge impacts on students’ future lives and livelihoods are the ones charged with trying to teach the students. Could it be that having such irrational people running the educational systems is one of the reasons our educational systems seem to have so many failures?

I am relatively an old coot whose high school (literally one of the best in the US in the 1950s) graded on a 100 point system, and reported those grades on the high school transcripts. The numeric grades were converted to A (93 and above) through F only for report cards. The college I went to in the 1960s also used 100 pt scale numeric grades, which were reported on the college transcripts. Interestingly, its use of the 100 pt scale was a sort of hybrid since a class grade was reported in multiples of 5. For example an A was either a 90, 95, or 100. A grade of B was 80 and 85; etc.

While the current system might work for the majority of the students, there is no reason not to have a system that works for all the students with the simple reintroduction of a 100 pt system.

Posted by: JOHNCHAP21 | January 6, 2009 11:37 AM

The State of Virginia should have ONE standard grading for all schools. We already have statewide standards of learning requirements, so why not for grading as well. The competitiveness to get into UVA is intense and keeping your fingers crossed that college admission officers will weigh GPAs for students from FCPS is wishful thinking. Heck, there is already speculation that Fairfax County has over representation at UVA and W&M and many of its top students are rejected simply because they are from Northern Virginia.

Posted by: cpnorton1 | January 6, 2009 11:51 AM

The advantage of the six-point scale is purported to be - what? That's the information that seems to be missing from this debate. Why, other than inertia, should Fairfax retain this apparently arbitrary system? Neither Mr. Fisher, nor anyone else, has offered a single reason why the six-point scale is superior to the ten-point scale.

Posted by: TomServo | January 6, 2009 1:16 PM

Fisher's "splash of sizzle, side of reality" style suggests he has huge insecurity/inferiority issues.

The tone would be a lot different if we could all dump on his children and their private schools, eh?

Posted by: iThink2 | January 6, 2009 2:21 PM

alfonsejr's post @ 9:23 am (1/6/09) is excellent. Thank you!

Posted by: iThink2 | January 6, 2009 2:28 PM

The question isn't why should we switch to a 10 point grading system, it's why shouldn't we switch? The grade inflation is minimal, and it puts our kids on even footing with most other school districts. We won't have to worry that colleges aren't adjusting GPAs to account for grading differences. Maybe in Virginia where the district is well known the colleges do adjust, but elsewhere around the country it's certainly much less likely.

People like Marc Fisher and Superintendent Dale have their logic backwards. They believe that in the absence of compelling reasons to switch, we shouldn't. Actually, the correct logic is that in the absence of compelling reasons not to, we should.

Posted by: wakeupfairfax | January 6, 2009 8:28 PM

The question isn't why should we switch to a 10 point grading system, it's why shouldn't we switch? The grade inflation is minimal, and it puts our kids on even footing with most other school districts. We won't have to worry that colleges aren't adjusting GPAs to account for grading differences. Maybe in Virginia where the district is well known the colleges do adjust, but elsewhere around the country it's certainly much less likely.

People like Marc Fisher and Superintendent Dale have their logic backwards. They believe that in the absence of compelling reasons to switch, we shouldn't. Actually, the correct logic is that in the absence of compelling reasons not to, we should.

Posted by: wakeupfairfax | January 6, 2009 8:29 PM

Talk about an inside-the-Beltway perspective. If Fisher actually read the FairGrade literature, he'd see that indeed large state schools often take gpa's right off the transcript, and don't take into account the minority grading system used here in Fairfax. Fisher, ease up on the patronizing tone and sarcasm, and address the the content of the argument -- or else join Fox.

Posted by: Gamarajoba | January 6, 2009 8:37 PM

Other writers (alfonssejr, wilson6, votewithyourfeet) have effectively rebutted Fisher's sarcastic column. Simply put, the evidence shows that Fairfax County students are disadvantaged by the current grading system, and there is virtually no argument that the system compensates for that disadvantage in any meaningful way. Surely he doesn't believe that his personal sample of admissions committee meetings counters the findings in the FCPS study, which are based on responses from 64 colleges and universities. His other arguments about whether and how these institutions can adjust for different grading scales appear to be mere assumptions. I am left wondering why Fisher would address an issue of great importance to thousands of families in Fairfax County in such a condescending and ill-considered fashion.

Posted by: scott39 | January 6, 2009 8:55 PM

As a parent I want grade normalization not grade inflation. I just want the grading system to be fair. I want the 10 point system.

The one that the rest of the country is moving to...

Lets say you have two students,

Identical twins separated at birth (Long story)

Frank from Fairfax and Peter from Prince William.

Both are taught by teachers who happen to be identical twins and got thier certifications from identical universities

Both Frank and Peter take a Math class and take a exam of 100 questions.

Both get 93 questions correct. That pretty good!!

Now they both take thier SAT and they both get 1350 on it (Math/Verbal). (Now this is due to the fact that they where taught by teachers with identical skills/certifications).

So now they both apply for scholarships at the university.

But wait, Frank went to school in fairfax. His GPA is a 3.5 for getting 93 questions correct. Peter went to school in Prince William his GPA is 4.0


Peter gets a full scholarship because his GPA is 4.0 with a 1350 SAT score.

Peter is now a Engineer

Frank, well he got nothing. The scholarship cutoff was 3.6, he still lives in his mothers basement.

He now is a fry cook at the local burger joint.

Thank you fairfax county.

The problem is most schools for merit/honor scholarships have strict guidelines that do not take into consideration "Unique" grading systems.

Fairfax county grading system even puts your child at a disadvantage when applying for corporate scholarships.

Its not fair, but it is reality.

Posted by: clcharle1 | January 6, 2009 10:56 PM

Here's why I think Fairgrade is right and Marc Fisher is wrong:

I took my daughter for an info session and tour at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. She was a straight-A student at Chantilly HS with 8 AP classes under her belt by the end of her senior year (scores of 5 on most of the tests), pretty high combined scores on the SAT (780 in math) and multiple SAT subject tests under her belt. We asked the admissions counselors giving the presentation if they were familiar with FCPS grading policy and do they read the individual school profiles that come with each student's transcript? The response, in a nutshell: we receive thousands of applications each year and cannot possibly know the intricacies of each school district's grading policy. And there is no guarantee that a student's FCPS school profile (which is sent with every high school transcript) is even read, much less taken into consideration.

My daughter got into every college she applied to, including Lehigh. But her admission did not come with any merit scholarship offer. I am convinced that schools outside of the immediate area are not as familiar with the impeccably high standards that Jack Dale says will be compromised by a 10-point system. Even Patrick Murphy, Director of Accountability for FCPS, has stated publicly that our GPA's are deflated relative to other school districts.

As Shannon Gundy, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Maryland said after last August's roundtable: "If I lived in Fairfax County, I'd want it changed."

Posted by: rockermom1 | January 7, 2009 10:46 AM

I agree with several other posters.

It's not so much the grade scale and college admissions - it's the scholarship money.

So perhaps the scholarship boards need to address grades the same way admissions boards do - by looking at the grading scale of the system.

Actually, let's just do away with the whole 4 point system completely and go to numerical grades - that way a 93 is a 93 is a 93.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | January 7, 2009 12:59 PM

As a college professor, I've been interested in grade inflation for a long time. Perhaps a couple of observations will be helpful.

First of all, teachers want to assign grades that accurately reflect students' work in their classes. They do this in a variety of ways in the hope that these measurements are not in some way biased against some learning style. But the grades are supposed to show how the student performed in a class. Using them to rank applicants for financial aid, then, is using grades to make comparisons, and that's not what the system is designed for, whether it's six points or ten points.

Second, the real issue here may well be that Fairfax students are at some disadvantage in the competition for scholarships. That's unfortunate, but with limited funding for scholarships, somebody's going to get hurt. SAT or ACT scores would be a much better basis for financial aid decisions.

Third, parents in affluent Fairfax and Montgomery counties--and elsewhere--all too often overlook a strategy that could reduce college costs and improve students' opportunities for success outside of college. That is, they don't consider community colleges. At selective colleges and universities, most general education courses are taught by teaching assistants or, if by experienced senior faculty, in huge lecture sections. At community colleges, classes are taught by full time faculty and adjuncts who recognize the relationships between the courses they teach and the world off campus. And community college costs are low. Each year, students leave the community college where I teach and go on to brand-name universities with plenty of financial aid. I know of one student who transferred to George Washington with a full scholarship. Another, when I last saw him, was trying to decide among several top tier universities. All offered the curriculum he wanted, and he planned to attend the one that offered him the best financial aid package.

I guess it would be very exciting to send a student off to Harvard or MIT or some such place, but I think it would be exciting regardless of whether it happened at the beginning of the freshman year or the junior year. And as one who transferred from community college to university, I can attest that my bachelor's degree doesn't indicate that many of my credits came from a community college.

Posted by: jlhare1 | January 7, 2009 2:19 PM

jlhare1- I agree with your remarks about community colleges 100%. I grew up in another part of the country and attending the local community college was a popular choice and it was a great school. I know that because my siblings and I ( all honor students) attended. We all received at least a bachelor's degree and are employed in professional careers. But whenever I suggest that to people in this area, most parents are horrified by the idea.
As for non-need based aid ( I believe it is called "Merit Aid"), many colleges are in fact decreasing it or eliminating it altogether ( Northwestern U. is among the latter),and going toward need based aid only. Parents need to keep in mind that when schools do offer merit aid it is used to bring in top achieving students (like athletic aid is used to recruit top athletes). Too many parents feel as if their child is entitled to merit aid even if he/she is a mediocre student.

Posted by: MLC1 | January 7, 2009 4:03 PM

I live in Connecticut, not the DC area, but after working on grading issues for over eight years here, it is clear that the Fairfax situation is almost identical to what we had in my own school district: a group of generally high performing students getting generally lower than typical grades. It happened because CT, like VA and every other state, lets teachers and schools grade as they see fit. (Some states like NC do specify a grading system, but none specify what level of actual performance gets an "A" or a 94 or any other grade: that is left entirely to local decision). The resulting grade patterns are much more historical accidents than a matter of "high standards", academic virtue, or anything else under hot debate and determined defense in Fairfax.

The solution is pretty simple: supply a "translation" plot or chart to national equivalents. The national data is published by the College Board every year, and the high school has all the local data required. The school master version takes less than an hour to prepare, and then about a minute per student to print a conversion plot for each student to file with each application.

Voila! The local grades and GPAs remain, but they can be understood in a national context.

It's easy and it helps kids: why fight?

Bob Hartranft
Simsbury CT

Posted by: hartranft1 | January 7, 2009 5:38 PM

I will be very disappointed if the Fairfax County School Board does not pass a resolution which requires all other school districts in the United States to immediately adopt the superior Fairfax grading scale.

Fairfax County, alone, has the responsibility of correcting what has clearly become a disgraceful abandonment of high standards.

Of course, that argument is absurd. But grading scale adjustment alone will not correct the situation that grades are still relevant only to the peer group in which the student is being graded. These standards vary from school to school and district to district.

If FCPS teachers were to change places with a teacher from inner city Trenton, or Detroit, they would have to rapidly adjust their view on what work constitutes an "A." As would the teacher taking the post in Fairfax. That is the reality of norm-referencing.

I am sure that Mr. Fisher finds it perfectly appropriate that at least one out of five students at Princeton should receive an A. Performing in the top quintile (20%) in almost any school district should earn a student an A. That should not be confused, however, with thinking that means that scoring 80% in a class equates with a letter grade of A.

Even if all grades were equally distrubuted with the same number of students receiving A, B, C, D, and F, then 20 percent of the class would still receive A.

In high quality districts, or Universities, a higher percentage of students do top quality work than failing work, so it is not surprising that the actual figure that earns A's is in excess of 30%.

Grades, and ensuing Grade Point Averages, directly correlate to performance on the SAT and ACT, a fact that has been empirically established by neumerous research papers.

My colleague from Connecticut (Hartranft) is absolutely correct when he argues that regardless of the scale utilized, the only way to accurately compare students from school to school, or state to state, is to convert all reported grades to a standardized scale which not only corrects for idiosyncracies in the grading methods, but also for academic performance differences among the populations.

Can Mr. Fisher honestly argue that every admissions officer in the nation is familiar with the quality of Simsbury schools and adjusts GPA's accordingly?

If so, what scale are they using? And when they leave their position next year, do they promise to pass their omniscience along to their replacement?

Posted by: ElliotNC | January 8, 2009 9:01 AM

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